Wild's Heatley out to prove himself again

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 13, 2013 - 12:24 AM

The veteran forward arrived at camp lean and healthy and determined to land a top-six forward spot.

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Dany Heatley practices at Ridder Arena on the U of M campus during training camp, September 12, 2013.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Dany Heatley looks back at the waning seconds of that crucial April 3 game in San Jose and says he probably would have done the same thing.

“It was just a battle in front of the net with a defenseman, which you get into a million times,” Heatley said of his nasty clash with former Sharks teammate Marc-Edouard Vlasic. “I just kind of tripped up and landed funny.”

Heatley’s spill left the Wild winger with a torn labrum and required season-ending surgery on his left shoulder. He doesn’t blame Vlasic, who called to apologize.

“It’s hockey,” Heatley said.

Heatley’s absence affected the Wild. Say what you want about the aging Heatley — he admits he’s not the same Dany Heatley who was Rookie of the Year, All-Star Game MVP, first-team All-Star and two-time 50-goal and 100-point scorer — but he’s still a big body who can score from anywhere.

Example: That same game in San Jose. Heatley tied the score with a shot taken from near the Wild bench.

After Heatley’s injury, the Wild won only five times in 12 games and went from division leader to nearly missing the playoffs. After Heatley’s injury, the Wild scored five power-play goals in 17 games, including the playoffs. Heatley has scored 139 career power-play goals, most in the NHL since he entered in 2001-02, and 360 career goals, fourth in the league over that span.

“Heater doesn’t get nearly enough respect,” coach Mike Yeo said. “Seeing him out, people now realize how important he is to our team.”

Getting quicker

Heatley, 32, enters this season motivated to show the league, Wild fans and, most important, himself that he is just that. He says his shoulder is “strong and tight and feels good.”

He’s visibly leaner. And after an honest, frank conversation this summer with Yeo, he is excited that he’ll be put in a spot where he can succeed — a top-six forward role after playing on the third line for much of last season.

“I’d be very disappointed if I didn’t get 30 [goals] at least,” Heatley said. “The rehab kind of almost reset me this summer. I had a focus. I had to keep working on [the shoulder], which helped with my other training. I’m lighter this year. I feel quicker. I’m just anxious to get back and be who I can be. I’m refreshed and excited to play.”

Heatley’s numbers have declined the past three years, going from 119 combined goals from 2007-10 to 26 in 2010-11, 24 his first year with Minnesota in 2011-12 and 11 (pace of 25 over 82 games) last season.

The two-time Olympian wasn’t invited to Canada’s Olympic camp last month, which he didn’t expect, but it still stung a bit. He spent the summer trying to improve his skating with power-skating coach Aaron Konecsni and will make a conscious effort to stay on top of it all season.

“It’s something that for me doesn’t come natural. It never has,” Heatley said of his skating. “I’ve always had to focus on it, maybe now more than ever because I’m getting older and the game’s gotten faster.”

Almost bought out

Heatley was driven by the offseason chatter that the Wild may have likely used one of its two compliance buyouts on him if he wasn’t hurt. A buyout would have cost the cap-strapped Wild $3.3 million but cleared $7.5 million to spend elsewhere.

Instead, Heatley’s injury prevented it, and his friend, former Badger Tom Gilbert, became the buyout casualty instead. Gilbert still hasn’t found a job.

“I understand the business. I know the talk was going on, but I was aware of the rules and the situation,” Heatley said. “It didn’t happen, and now I move on and try to help us win this year.”

He’ll have to do so without his buddy Devin Setoguchi, who was also traded to the Winnipeg Jets. They were acquired nine days apart by the Wild from San Jose two years ago.

“He’s going to enjoy playing in a Canadian city,” Heatley said. “He’s a guy that a lot of times plays on adrenaline and it’s good for his game, and I think that’s going to help him in Winnipeg.”

Heatley is entering the final year of his contract. He’s not dumb. He sees the league getting younger. He sees how many legit NHLers, like Gilbert, haven’t found jobs.

“It is a huge year. Obviously I’m aware it’s a contract year, but that can’t be my focus,” Heatley said. “My focus is to get back to how I know I can play, and if I do that, things will take care of themselves.

“My self-pride is a big motivating factor for me. Proving people wrong is bred into pretty much every hockey player. Very rarely are there the Sidney Crosbys. Most guys, you have to beat out different guys all the way through [your career]. That’s good motivation.”

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