The decline of Dany Heatley

In 2006-07, Dany Heatley was widely considered one of the very best players in the world. He managed 50 goals and 105 points, the second straight season he’d broken the 100-point barrier. He was part of one of the most potent trios in the NHL with Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson. In the summer of 2008, despite coming off a relatively disappointing 41-goal, 82-point year, Heatley signed a monster six-year, $45 million contract replete with signing bonuses and NTC’s, all but ensuring he would remain an Ottawa Senator for the foreseeable future. At just 27-years old, he seemed poised to dominate the league for years to come.

Things have begun to steadily slide downhill for Heatley ever since, however. The year after signing the big deal, Heatley’s production stumbled across the board: in 72 games, he managed 39 goals and 72 points. The puddle-deep Ottawa Senators, saddled with the suddenly unwieldy cap hits of their number one line, fell off a cliff finishing with just 83-points, good for 11th in the Eastern Conference. Just a year removed from inking a long-term contract, Heatley demanded a trade and orchestrated a move to the San Jose Sharks, where his decline has continued, albeit somewhat obscured by the strength of the team.

Once upon a time, Heatley was an elite even strength player – or at least the combination of Alfredsson, Spezza and Heatley was elite at five-on-five. There is some question of who was driving the bus on that line and whether circumstances tilted the scales in their favor (think of the way Alain Vigneault uses the Sedins) but that’s a different investigation.

Since landing in San Jose, however, Dany Heatley has been a mediocre forward at ES. At best. His ability to drive possession has all but evaporated. While the counting stats tell some of the story over the last two seasons (particularly his career low 26-goal, 64-point effort this past year), the decline is most evident in the underlying numbers.

Season ESP/60 PPP/60 rel corsi/60 team rank corsi tied team rank
2008-2009 2.2 4.25 5.6 3rd 0.522 3rd
2009-2010 2.2 6.34 0.1 7th 0.497 11th
2010-2011 1.55 6.61 -4.3 10th 0.512 11th

The table shows Heatley’s production rates at both even strength and the power-play over the last three seasons, as well as his relative corsi rate, corsi tied ratio and team rank according to both measures. Relative corsi is a metric that corrects for team effects by subtracting the players off-ice and on-ice corsi rates. Meaning, if Player X has a corsi of +3/60, but his team manages +6/60 while he’s on the bench, his relative corsi rate would be -3/60.

Looking at possession rates with the score tied eliminates playing-to-score effects, which tend to skew corsi numbers depending on how much a player skates when the team is ahead or chasing. Playing a lot when down by a goal will inflate a players’ corsi and vice versa when the team is protecting a lead.

In everything but the PP, Heatley’s slide into mediocrity is apparent. His ES production efficiency fell below the average top-six player this year (1.80/60), while both his relative corsi and corsi tied rates were near the bottom of the barrel on his club. This is despite skating with some of the best line mates the Sharks had to offer in Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Clowe and Logan Couture the last two years. Even given that impressive list, Heatley’s two year cumulative corsi-tied ratio was just .505. The only regular SJS players with worse percentages over that same time frame were Jamie McGinn, Jamal Mayers and Scott Nichol. For the sake of comparison, guys like Joe Pavelski (.560) and Patrick Marleau (.533) were well clear of Heatley.

In light of the recent trade, further context can be added by comparing Heatley to the newest San Jose Shark Martin Havlat. The disparity in the two guy’s gross output the last few years has led most fans to assume Heatley is probably the superior player. The underlying numbers suggest otherwise.

Season ESP/60 PPP/60 rel corsi/60 team rank corsi tied team rank
2008-2009 2.89 2.96 6.6 2nd 0.608 1st
2009-2010 1.98 4.46 -0.3 5th 0.453 10th
2010-2011 2.41 3.96 11.6 2nd 0.467 2nd

Aside from the aberrant dip in 2009-2010, Havlat has been by far the superior player, at least at even strength. His relative corsi rating has ranged from second to fifth during the last three seasons and his corsi tied rank was top drawer in two of the three years. His absolute corsi rates were fairly poor in Minnesota, but the team was sink-hole in terms of possession which is why relative corsi rates and team ranking provides meaningful context.

Havlat’s ES production efficiency was also excellent-to-elite in two of the three seasons. His three year average ESP/60 was 2.60 versus Heatley’s 2.02. Despite playing 434 less minutes at five-on-five than Heatley, Havlat scored 18 more points (147-129). Keep in mind the difference in the quality of teams between the two players over the last two seasons as well: Havlat’s most frequent line mates in Minnesota were Kyle Brodziak, Guillame Latendresse and Cal Clutterbuck. The best offensive player Havlat skated with semi-regularly was probably Pierre-Marc Bourchard; he played with him for about 30% of the time last year.

The one area Heatley is superior and continues to be an elite producer is the power-play. His three-year average efficiency from 2008-2011 was 5.94/60, likely one of the best numbers in the league. It’s entirely possible he benefited from the Sharks ultra-potent power-play unit(s), but there’s still no denying Heatley’s consistency in this area of the game. In fact, the numbers suggest Heatley is developing into a sort of PP specialist: a guy who needs to be sheltered at even strength but can still do damage with the opposition short-handed. Clearly, Doug Wilson felt that a $7.5 million cap hit was too high of a price to pay for that kind of role.

Unfortunately for Wild fans, even strength is where the club needs the most help. They had ghastly possession and out-shooting numbers last season and managed just 130 goals at even-strength – good for 26th in the league. Heatley will no doubt add another potent weapon to the Wild’s PP, but it’s unlikely he’ll do much to help raise the tide otherwise.

Heatley will turn just 31-years old in January, so a return to his old Ottawa Senators form certainly isn’t impossible at this point. If the cause for his lackluster five-on-five play in San Jose was acute but curable, then perhaps Heatley and Koivu will form a powerful ES duo and the club will get appropriate value from the last three years of his pricey contract. That’s not a bet I’d necessarily make myself, however.