For Dany Heatley(notes), this trade should reinforce what he should have known already. He's at a crossroads in his career. At 30, he's too young to go into decline, but too old to coast on skill. He still has that world-class cannon, but he's got to move to fire it.
Before the San Jose Sharks traded him to the Minnesota Wild, it was obvious that he needed to push himself to keep up, let alone excel, in an NHL full of younger, faster players. He had set up a training regimen that included more on-ice drills than in previous summers – to work not only on his shot, but "his fitness and his skating," according to his agent, J.P. Barry.
"All players when they turn 30 years old …" Barry said, his voice trailing off. "Sometimes you're gifted and you're in many ways a natural. I would say that Dany is a natural goal-scorer with incredible hockey sense. When you get to this stage, you have to combine all of that with working on your physical skills. He knows that."
He has to know it now.
Heatley said after exit interviews he had no idea the Sharks might trade him. His agent said it was considered a formality when he had to submit a list of 10 no-way-Jose teams before his blanket no-trade clause became a modified no-trade clause Friday. He said he was caught "pretty off-guard" Sunday night, sitting outside after dinner in British Columbia, when he received a call from San Jose general manager Doug Wilson and learned he had been dealt.
"I didn't expect it, obviously," he said.
But it couldn't have been that big of a surprise. Both he and his agent realized the contract now allowed for a trade, and the Sharks had lost in the Western Conference final for the second straight season. They had three big-money forwards and one had failed to produce. He was the one.
For all the criticism they had received in the past for not producing in the postseason, Joe Thornton(notes) ($7 million cap hit) had three goals and 17 points in 18 games. Patrick Marleau(notes) ($6.9 million) had seven goals and 13 points.
Heatley ($7.5 million) had three goals and nine points – and had been bumped to the second line by the end. He had two goals and 13 points in 14 playoff games for the Sharks in 2010.
Five goals in 32 playoff games? Too little for someone paid so much to score.
"Obviously they had a lot of salary tied in to three forwards, and we didn't get the job done those two years," Heatley said. "So from that aspect, I knew going in what the situation was and obviously this was a possibility, and it happened."
There were mitigating circumstances. Heatley gutted through a groin injury in the playoffs last year. He played with a broken hand this year and also suffered a high ankle sprain during the Western Conference final. Wilson emphasized the injuries when he spoke to reporters after the trade, and it should be noted that Heatley missed only two games in the regular season and one in the playoffs in two seasons with the Sharks.
But the circumstances weren't mitigating enough, were they? Had the Sharks considered Heatley a warrior, had they felt these were freak things, they wouldn't have traded him. They became part of a pattern – part of a larger concern about Heatley's fitness, skating and scoring.
Look at Heatley's regular-season goal totals since the 2004-05 lockout: 50, 50, 41, 39, 39 and … 26.
"We're talking about a player who really had his first dip in his entire career last year, OK?" Barry said. "I mean, total the numbers up, and you'll see he's literally top five in the decade in goals, points, power-play goals, game-winning goals. So he ran into some injuries, and unfortunately there was a lot of pressure in San Jose to win with a lot of big salaries, and they didn't win."
We'll see if it's a dip or part of a decline.
In Atlanta, Heatley had baggage because of the auto accident that killed his passenger and Thrashers teammate, Dan Snyder. He asked for a trade.
In Ottawa, Heatley clashed with coach Cory Clouston. He asked for a trade – and then ended up with more baggage when he declined to go to the Edmonton Oilers and forced the Senators to take a less-favorable deal with the Sharks.
"Probably not the smoothest trades in history," Heatley said.
Heatley gained a reputation. An Ottawa reporter asked Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher if he was concerned Heatley might be "poisonous." Fletcher seemed neither surprised nor flustered as he replied: "I think he's the opposite, in fact."
In San Jose, Heatley was set up for success. He was far away from his past problems. He was a goal-scorer playing with Thornton, a former MVP and one of the best passing centers in the league. He was playing for a contender in a city with a sold-out rink, but he wasn't in a Canadian market with hockey-obsessed media.
Still, it didn't work. Heatley has to ask himself why.
"I think it could be a good shock," Barry said. "He has to now just embrace it. He's a real pro. I know a lot of people don't realize Dany is the kind of guy that's loved in the room. He's a good old-fashioned hockey player. He wants to achieve. He wants to score. He puts a lot of pressure on himself, so he knows that it didn't get done there, and I think he'll just … He's going to a hockey market, and he's going to embrace it and he's going to try to be a top goal-scorer again next year."
When the Sharks dropped Heatley to the second line, they replaced him with a faster player: Devin Setoguchi(notes). Then they traded Setoguchi to the Wild at the NHL draft. Instead of turning back to Heatley, San Jose made another trade with the Wild for another faster player – Heatley for Martin Havlat(notes).
They did so even though Heatley had slightly better statistics last season – his down season – than Havlat did last year. They did so even though Heatley has had much better statistics in his best years than Havlat ever has. What does that tell you?
Havlat has been good in the playoffs, and Heatley better find a way to get faster.
This is a good move for the Wild on paper. Heatley's 26 goals and 64 points, his lowest totals ever for a full season, would have led Minnesota last season. The Wild had too many passers and not enough shooters, ranking 30th in shots and 26th in goals last season, and now has picked up a couple of shooters in Heatley and Setoguchi.
But this is not a good move for Heatley on paper. As much as the Wild thinks of Mikko Koivu(notes) and Pierre-Marc Bouchard(notes) as passers, neither is on Thornton's level. Heatley let that opportunity slip away. He let himself slip from a team that is trying to make the Cup final to a team that is trying to make the playoffs in the first place.
He cannot afford to let himself slip any further. In a conference call with the media Monday, he mentioned multiple times that he was concentrating on "getting healthy" and getting in "great shape."
The bottom line is this: In Atlanta and Ottawa, Heatley wanted out. In San Jose, he was shipped out.
"I wanted a change in those situations," Heatley said. "Obviously this one was different for me, but that's the way it goes. I'm happy to be in Minnesota. It's definitely a motivator."