BOSTON — Danton Heinen has British Columbia in his bones. He is from Langley, about 45 minutes southeast of Vancouver. The 28-year-old still calls the town home. Heinen’s dream landing spot when he’s done with hockey is somewhere north in the province. Near a lake would be ideal.
Retirement, however, was not on his mind this summer in Vancouver. Heinen was working out and skating in a group that included fellow British Columbians Connor Bedard, Kent Johnson, Alex Kerfoot and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
The difference was that Bedard, Johnson, Kerfoot and Nugent-Hopkins — the former without an NHL game to his name — all had job security for 2023-24. Heinen did not. He was training for a future that was not guaranteed.
“You’ve just got to believe,” said Heinen. “You’ve always got to believe that something’s going to come up. It should almost be a little more motivation that, ‘Hey, you’ve got to work even harder and try to prove people wrong.’”
On Sept. 5, with no other viable options, Heinen signed a tryout agreement with the Boston Bruins. Not until Monday did he turn that PTO into a one-year, $775,000 contract. The two-time Bruin was scheduled to make his season debut against the Florida Panthers on the fourth line next to Johnny Beecher and Oskar Steen.
Belief, it appears, served Heinen well.
From tryout to contract
A tryout is not an easy thing to turn into a deal. Alex Chiasson learned that the hard way. The PTO Chiasson signed on Aug. 21 got him nowhere except a two-game, zero-point preseason audition and best wishes following an Oct. 1 jettisoning. Around the league, Artem Anisimov, Josh Bailey, ex-Bruin Anders Bjork and Brandon Sutter were others who suffered the fate.
Heinen had several things going for him. He entered camp with his hand raised to play both wings, kill penalties, move up and down the lines. He scored one goal in three preseason appearances. He applied his hockey sense and skating effectively.
It did not hurt either that Heinen’s coach knew him just as well as anyone.
When Jim Montgomery was at the University of Denver, he trained his sights on the spindly and skilled wing tearing up the BCHL. For two seasons, Heinen was Montgomery’s leading scorer. Heinen’s NCAA production did not translate directly to the NHL. But he retained the bedrock elements that Montgomery identified and endorsed, to the point where his former college coach had seen enough.
“I know what Danton Heinen is,” Montgomery said before the second-to-last preseason game. “I know what he brings. So I don’t need to see him play tonight.”
In his first Black-and-Gold go-around, Heinen was a trusted member of the team’s middle class. In 2017-18, he scored a career-high 47 points in 77 games. Twelve of those points were on the power play, where Heinen averaged 2:00 of ice time per appearance. Two years later, Heinen was a fixture on the No. 3 line next to Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle during the team’s Stanley Cup Final run.
Heinen is a different player now. He is a depth forward coming off a 22-point season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. It took injuries to Milan Lucic and Jakub Lauko, who started the season higher on the depth chart, for Heinen to get his deal.
He is OK with that. In years past, he may not have been.
A wary eye
In his first Boston spin, Heinen kept a closer watch on his teammates. Whether it was Bjork, Ryan Donato, Karson Kuhlman or Joakim Nordstrom, wings with whom he shared some tools, Heinen monitored their play and compared it to his own. It wasn’t always healthy. It might have led to his trade to the Anaheim Ducks for Nick Ritchie on Feb. 24, 2020.
“In my early years, I did that a lot more,” said Heinen. “But you can be totally off on what you’re thinking. It’s just energy that you’re wasting. For me, I try not to look into it at all. Just focus on myself, focus on what I can control.”
Heinen had plenty of competition to track this time around, including Chiasson, Jesper Boqvist, A.J. Greer and Marc McLaughlin. He outlasted all of them. Even if he entered camp without a contract, Heinen arrived with a keener degree of self-assurance. The leaguewide cap situation, he figured, explained more about his shortage of interest than his play.
Still, it was not easy for Heinen to stay patient. He practiced hard every day. He went on the Bruins’ 4-0-0 road trip through California and Chicago. Heinen had no guarantees except for the faith that Montgomery had in him.
That, in retrospect, was quite strong.
“His versatility is really important,” said Montgomery. “He can play both wings adeptly, as well. He understands whatever line he’s put on, what the expectation is of the role he’s going to play.”
The 28-year-old should be a responsible five-on-five player. He is expected to kill penalties. Heinen will play left and right wing if the Bruins need him to do so.
All of that sounds just fine for a player who entered camp with nothing promised.
“A little bit,” Heinen said when asked if it was difficult waiting his turn. “It is what it is. I think you’ve just got to be grateful for what you have. Still get to come to the rink every day and play hockey.”
(Top photo: Richard T Gagnon / Getty Images)