Commentary

What to expect from Dany Heatley?

Updated: September 30, 2011, 6:17 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Dany Heatley leaned against a wall outside the Minnesota Wild's dressing room and wondered aloud, "What do you need?"

[+] EnlargeDany Heatley
AP Photo/Andy KingDany Heatley scored just five goals in 32 playoff games during his two postseason runs with the San Jose Sharks.

"What can you possibly need that hasn't already been said?" he asked.

The biggest star ever to play for the Minnesota Wild was grinning, so you know he was egging us on a bit. But the question is a fair one: What has not been said about the 30-year-old winger?

The baggage that trails Heatley, both light and cheerful and dark and tragic, is well known across the hockey landscape. Of all the players in the NHL, it's hard to imagine someone as talented as Heatley who has been more dissected and debated.

The NHL's rookie of the year in 2002, Heatley was the driver in a tragic training-camp accident that took the life of Atlanta Thrashers teammate Dan Snyder in the fall of 2003. Although the Thrashers and their fans were incredibly supportive of Heatley, he eventually asked for a trade out of Atlanta. He was sent to Ottawa, where he flourished, posting back-to-back 50-goal seasons as the Senators went to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals. He signed a six-year, $45 million contract extension, but asked to be traded just one year into the deal in the summer of 2009.

Along the way, he refused to accept a trade to Edmonton, enraging fans across Canada. Even Heatley's hometown fans in Calgary booed him during the Canadian Olympic orientation camp in the fall of 2009 (who knew Calgarians would feel that much empathy for their provincial rivals?).

Traded to San Jose instead, Heatley helped lead the Sharks to two straight Western Conference finals appearances, but his goal production went from the magical 50 to 39 to 26 during the past two regular seasons. With just five goals in 32 postseason games for San Jose, Heatley admitted he wasn't all that surprised to get the call from GM Doug Wilson this summer saying he had been dealt to the Wild for Martin Havlat.

"A little, maybe," he said. "But when I look back on it, probably not as big a shock."

When he went to San Jose, Heatley figured there was probably a "one- or two-year window" during which the Sharks would need to win it all given the big-ticket contracts that dominated their lineup, Heatley's included.

Which brings us to our hallway meeting early in training camp.

We have known Heatley a long time, from those early, heady days in Atlanta through the Snyder tragedy and beyond. Still, it would be foolhardy to suggest we can imagine all Heatley has endured through the past decade.

Yet on Monday, Heatley did not resemble the lost soul many might imagine him to be. He didn't seem like a player caught in some kind of limbo between his past and an uncertain future. He was smiling and eager to chat, indulging a visitor's request to catch up.

Heatley spent the summer at his British Columbia home and didn't travel much. He got into a good routine of training and was able to heal up some nagging injuries that came from playing deep into the playoffs three of the past five springs.

"I gave myself a chance to heal up and I feel good," he said.

For someone who has been dissected as often as Heatley has, he appeared pretty Zen about what people say or write about him and where he is in his career (or, more to the point, where he might not be). If he had been younger, he might have been more bothered by the trade, just as he might have been more bothered earlier in his career by reports that he is a player in decline, a decline some critics believe may be irreversible.

"I think you're always aware of it," he said of the negative comments. "I have a really good support group -- my family, really good friends and good teammates. Those are the only people I care about really."

Heatley mused aloud that he would like to go back at the end of the season and find out how often the hockey prognosticators are right when they make dire predictions about a player.

"I'd like to see how close they are from the start to the end of the season," he said. "A lot of guys who write and talk about the game, they don't really do their homework. One guy says something and then eight other guys just repeat it and it just snowballs."

Heatley figured only one person knows how he feels and what to expect this coming season, and that's he. His grin suggested he thinks it's going to be pretty darned good.

Wild GM Chuck Fletcher gave a little chuckle when asked about the decline in Heatley's production. He would still have been the leading scorer on the Wild last season despite his "decline," Fletcher pointed out in an interview with ESPN.com. While the GM may be rolling the dice in swapping big, talented wingers, Fletcher believes he's gone in the right direction.

Havlat never meshed with Wild franchise center Mikko Koivu and his lack of durability made bringing in Heatley, regardless of his production the past couple of seasons, an acceptable risk.

Fletcher has raved about Heatley's willingness to be part of what they both hope will be a renaissance in Minnesota, where the Wild have missed the playoffs in three straight campaigns. "His attitude's been terrific," Fletcher said.

Heatley still possesses great hands and a terrific shot, and Fletcher is confident those talents will be on full display in the coming months despite rumblings to the contrary.

"He feels there are people in the industry that are doubting his ability to be a productive hockey player," the GM noted, which means Heatley is more than a little motivated.

No doubt Heatley will get all the chances in the world to succeed.

Minnesota rookie coach Mike Yeo has used Heatley, Koivu and Heatley's former San Jose teammate Devin Setoguchi, acquired in a separate offseason deal, as the team's undisputed top unit early in training camp. Yeo acknowledged there are different perceptions of Heatley floating around the hockey world; yet, within minutes of the deal being made to acquire Heatley, Yeo received three calls or texts from hockey people who knew Heatley well.

"All three were extremely positive," Yeo told ESPN.com.

Since then, Yeo has asked around on his own.

"I haven't heard one person say anything bad about him," Yeo said. "I've been incredibly impressed with his work ethic and his attitude."

We asked Heatley if he's happy and he seemed mildly surprised by the question.

"Happy? Yeah, I'm happy. I get to come to the rink and play hockey every day," he said.

Each of the cities in which he's played "has created excitement for me," he said.

This stop is no different.

"This is probably one of the best places to play in the league," he said.

In due time, we will find out if that is in fact all Dany Heatley needs to say.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.