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.

Comments (19)

  1. He’s still a F***ing allstar though.

  2. While I agree that Havlat was the better player using hockey sabermetrics in the 2010-2011 season I find it hard to see evidence that this is a massive decline for Heatley as you claim. By your logic, it could have been argued a year ago that Havlat was in decline, however looking back, it looks like an aberration to you.

    What do we know about last year? Dany Heatley played with a broken hand, and shot a career low 12.0%. Couple this with just 2.7 SOG per game and Heatley failed to score 30 G in a season (70 GP plus) for the first time since his rookie campaign. Usually when a player declines, his SOG goes down because they are having trouble getting to their “shooting areas.” However, SPCT usually will stay around the career average, and Heatley’s SPCT was 3.3 % lower than normal.

    One must assume that letting off fewer shots, combined with a worse shot, would be heavily influenced by a broken hand.

    With such a small sample size of diminished play, I find your conclusions could easily be explained by an injury, or at the very least, it is just as likely.

  3. Corsi Rel QOC
    2009-2010 = 1.077
    2010-2011 = 0.423
    Translation: He was being sheltered in 2010 compared to 2009. The quality of players that he faced in 2010 were substantially lower. And his points were still way off.

    Corsi Rel QOT
    2009-2010 = 1.638
    2010-2011 = 1.663
    Translation: The quality of his teammates actually increased despite his own precipitous CORSI Rel drop in 2010.

    I own Heatley in a keeper draft, so I really hope that the move to Minnesota pulls him out of this dive.

  4. Heatley broke his hand with about 10 games or so left in the regular season. His poor play was for the much of the season.

  5. Heatly was declining when he left Ottawa. Even when the points were there, it was clear that he wasn’t the guy that gave the team a lift when needed, or led the charge. Alfredsson playing some of the best hockey of his career was the engine that powered that line. Heatley was very good at racking up points in blow out games, and potted a fair share of empty netters as the team hugely supported his drive for 50 goals at the expense of other guys getting points.

    If he is going to get any form back, he will have to buy in to a real conditioning program. He hasn’t done that at any point in his career, will he now?

  6. @Taylor – a broken hand heals in six weeks. Did he break his hand six times in 2010-2011?

    @Greg – “He’s still a F***ing allstar though” . Only to his parents.

  7. I am a Sharks Fan, so I have been watching Heatley since the day he arrived. He plays like a pylon. A broken hand doesn’t account for terribly slow skating. Even with his sheltered 5-on-5 time, anyone could see he’s not worth his contract and he’s a liability. Look at the rankings, those are correct, he wasn’t in San Jose’s top 6 forwards.

    Also, in the last game of the playoffs at Vancouver, he played with some passion and actually looked pretty good. Why wasn’t he playing like that the rest of the playoffs or the season? If he doesn’t want to play, he should retire.

  8. Like Andrew, I too follow the Sharks and agree with his assessment. Heatley’s problems were not a broken hand but rather heavy legs and a broken heart. He was “far” better in the elimination game against Vancouver than previous games which proved he doesn’t show up every game which has plagued a few Sharks over the years. What disturbs me the most about Heatley’s game is he spends most of his time gliding up and down the boards and is noticeably absent from the high traffic areas. There is no doubt he has a world class shot but in order to tee it up he needs to gain seperation from a defender and have ample time to release it. Whether it is lack of conditioning or lack of desire or both, if Dany can’t find ways to seperate from defenders in order to release that potent shot of his, he will be an absolute failure in Minny and the Wild will be saddled with a monster contract for 3 years.

  9. Brilliant, brilliant analysis. Heatley, while being a puke, is toast. Stupid trade for Minnesota.

  10. Heatley has definitely declined, but Havlat played even more sheltered minutes at even strength than Heatley did and that contributes to his superior Corsi numbers. Given the way SJ rolls their lines, I’m not sure if Havlat will be hidden as much next year at even strength and his possession numbers will take a hit relative to his other SJ teammates. I think SJ wins the trade because of the extra cap space, but I’m not sure if Havlat is a superior player.

  11. Both teams got what they needed. Hopefully both teams turn out to be winners in this trade.
    Min missed the playoffs mostly because they didn’t shoot or score enough. Min got 2 guys that have scored 30+ goals and in the right situation could easily do it again, plus a couple of off-prospects. Min gets max value for a top D-man who would be gone for 0 in a year.

    SJ really needed a big all-star D-man to get to the SC, NOW, and had more then enough scoring, 7-20+ goals (including 2-30+ they kept). SJ may have offered Heatley, but Min wanted Seto and the pick before the draft, and the deal was done. Once SJ got Burns they will need cap space to keep him, so Heatley, Seto plus prospects for Burns, Havlat plus cap space for FA Handzus, works for both teams now and in the future.

  12. Heatley and Seto both get 30+ goals, Wild make playoffs, maybe win division.

    Havlat and Burns both get 20+ goals SJ wins west and then gets to the SC. Then wins?

  13. [...] and Martin Havlat were traded for one another at the beginning of this month. Both players had struggled on their respective teams and the changes of scenery will be welcomed by each of them. Heately will [...]

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