Today was trade deadline day; the second most important day for hockey fans that don't actually watch hockey games, behind July 1st. A day of overspending, overhyping, and overdrinking for Leaf fans because they just lost to a zamboni driver two days ago.
And on this eventful day full of historic moves like trades for future hall of famers Brady Skjei and Barclay Goodrow, our Boston Bruins made one move. We traded Danton Heinen for Nick Ritchie. And as I sat here watching the Ottawa Senators because it is literally the game on tonight and the pain and suffering of others is mildly amusing to me, I decided I wanted to say a few words.
Not about the trade itself, but about Heinen as a player and his somewhat short career as a bruin. I do this because I think Heinen is a very interesting case to look at in fancy stats versus eye test. And how a player could seemingly fall out of favor with a fanbase overnight even though absolutely nothing about his game changed. Also, just fyi my idea for this piece came from Janney posting about Heinen's RAPM charts earlier today so shout out to him.
Now I'm just going to start this off saying as a whole I've always taken most fancy stats with a grain of salt. Excuse me if I don't put blind faith in a stat that says Anders Bjork is the best defensive player on the team. I love Bjork....but cmon. So yeah I'm not a guy that spends all his free time browsing evolving hockey(although a lot of that has to do with the 5 dollar a month pricetag to use their advanced features hahahaha). But I do think they are useful and there is definitely a place for them.
That takes us to the start of our story...the year is 1995, July 5th in Langley British Columbia. A child is bor.....okay maybe not that far back.
The year is 2016. The Bruins are coming of 2 disappointing years of missing the playoffs. But things are looking up. The youth movement has begun. Throughout the year we will see some of the next generation of black and gold, some just for a cup of coffee, some for good. These are the players we'll be seeing at TD Garden for the next decade. Guys like Peter Cehlarik, Frank Vatrano, Rob O'Gara, Joe Morrow, Austin Czarnik, Ryan Spooner, Malcolm Subban, ZANE MCINTYRE! I'm sorry how the f*ck did we make the playoffs in 2016?
*we interrupt this this fantastic fanpost to inform you that the emergency backup goalie in this Sens Jackets game looks like he's about 12 years old. Now back to your regularly scheduled program.
Anyways, other than those absolute bruin legends there was some other youth making it's way into the bruins lineup. Carlo, Pasta, McAvoy, Gryz, players right one the cusp like Jake Debrusk and Anders Bjork. And finally, the man, the myth, the legend, Danton Heinen played 8 games with no points for -3 +/-. I can say with confidence I remember absolutely nothing about him in 2016. 2017 was another story.
2017, easily Danton Heinen's best season to date. He was a great young middle six piece for us that year. In 77 games he had 16 goals 31 assists for 47 points. He was a great middle six player with a great future. But according to the fancy stats, he was even better than that. According to fancy stats he was a better player than Jake Debrusk. According to fancy stats he was a better player than Krejci. According to fancy stats he was a better player than Pasta. ACCORDING TO FANCY STATS HE WAS A BETTER PLAYER THAN BERGERON.
This brings me to my first of two points(took me 600 words to get here hahahaha). And that is the discrepancy between eye test and fancy stats with Danton Heinen. In 2017 Heinen was a fancy stat god. In 2018 he was a good defensive forward according to fancy stats. This year he was a mediocre defensive forward who was hot garbage everywhere else. And you know what? You show me film of Heinen this year and Heinen in 2017, put a gun in my face and tell me to find out what changed...I wouldn't be able to.
Eye test wise he is the exact same player, with the same strengths and the same weaknesses. He is a smart player who is very good positionally who has a lackluster shot and mediocre speed. He's still Danton Heinen. So what changed? I saw someone on twitter, Ty Anderson I believe, say that Danton lost his confidence this year. Another said he has been unlucky. How much could confidence and luck possibly affect a skater's RAPM charts?
Well that's how Heinen lost the nerds, now on to the second part of this piece. How he lost the casual fans. Rewind back to 2017 again there were very few bruins fans who did not like Danton Heinen. There were a few but those aren't the fans I want to look at. I want to look at the ones who loved him as a rookie and hated him this year. Because as I've stated before, I'm under the assumption that eye test wise he has not changed whatsoever, but for some reason the way we've viewed him as a fanbase has.
There was a decrease in stats between 17 and 18, but a pretty reasonable one in my eyes considering his reduced role with the team. 2018 he was almost exclusively a 3rd liner so a decrease in points was reasonable. And my theory about the hate we started to see for Heinen last year that has really boiled over this year is that it had very little to do with points. It has to do with how he gets them.
As I said before, Heinen's strength comes from his positional game. He doesn't hound the puck carrier, he picks off errand passes. He doesn't drive to the net and hope for a rebound, he glides into the open ice and the puck finds him. Danton Heinen is not a player you notice away from the puck. It's probably his biggest strength and it's also exactly why he fell out of favor with majority of fans.
Now to the point I most wanted to make with this, and probably the one I'll get the most disagreement with, but I would die on this hill. Here it is, Danton Heinen lost the support of casual fans the day Karson Kuhlman first made it to the NHL. Kuhlman is the anti-Heinen. Whereas Heinen glides around looking lackadaisical at times, Kuhlman has one of the highest motors on the team. Watching the games it feels like Kuhlman is doing more even when he's not. You always know when he's on the ice when Heinen just drifted into the background. And with the two of them competing for roles as middle six wingers, even with Heinen putting up better numbers per 82 games this year almost all casual bruins fans prefer Kuhlman to him.
And now after the addition of Kase and with Debrusk and Bjork cemented in their positions there was a clear battle for the last middle six position between Heinen and Kuhlman. And Kuhlman wins that battle with the eye test every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Not because he's a better player, because he looks like he's doing more. That's why I think Heinen got a lot more hate this last year and a half. Not because he's been that much worse than his rookie season, but because the last two seasons he's been competing for icetime with a player who has a completely different play style, one that is much stronger with the eye test.
P.S. That Ottawa Columbus game actually ended up being pretty entertaining.