Officially, Danton Heinen is not a permanent NHLer.
He is living in team-provided housing, awaiting approval to find his own spot or return to Providence. The former is more likely to be in his future.
“I think it’s too early to say he’s here for good,” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “But I certainly don’t envision him leaving anytime soon either the way he’s played.”
Cassidy’s hesitancy to update Heinen’s status clashes with how promptly he’s pitched the rookie into the deep end. For the last two games, Cassidy has placed Heinen alongside top-liners Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak in Brad Marchand’s usual spot. It may not be coincidence the Bruins won both games against San Jose and Los Angeles. The 22-year-old, who once showed little urgency and even less strength on the puck, has played adult hockey in his pursuit of permanent NHL residence.
“That’s something I relish,” Heinen said of the top-line nod. “You want to be with those guys. Obviously there’s injuries right now. They need holes to fill. For me, it’s cool playing with those guys. I’m not trying to overthink it. Just a next-man-up kind of thing.”
Heinen’s workload alone is proof that, for the first time as a professional, he belongs up top for good. In Saturday’s 3-1 win over the Sharks, Heinen played 15 minutes 27 seconds, landing two shots on net and scoring with one. Two nights earlier, during the 2-1 win over the Kings, the rookie played 17:13 and assisted on Zdeno Chara’s deciding goal.
Heinen is the team’s fifth-leading scorer, good for four goals and six assists through 15 games while averaging 14:35 of play per outing. He is resembling the point-per-game difference-maker he became in last year’s AHL playoffs, when the first-liner recorded nine goals and nine assists in 17 appearances.
The separation between the leagues, however, is one that Heinen had trouble comprehending during earlier recalls.
As a 2016-17 rookie, the former University of Denver standout made the team out of camp. But he went scoreless in his first seven NHL games. It was a stretch interrupted by two healthy scratches. The Bruins assigned Heinen to Providence on Nov. 2, 2016, recalled him on Dec. 10, then returned him to Providence for good five days later.
This year, Heinen didn’t make the initial roster. He was brought up on Oct. 10 for three performances against Colorado, Arizona, and Vegas, which earned him a demotion one week later. He couldn’t help but wonder why he’d slide off an NHL roster as if it were made of ice.
“Those things go through your mind, naturally, when you get sent down,” Heinen said. “For me, I think it just put a little fire under me. I always knew I could play. It was just a matter of really showing it and being a reliable player on a consistent basis. That’s all I’m trying to do, be consistent and show them I can do it here consistently.”
The Bruins were sold on Heinen’s skill. On both wings, the left-shot forward displayed straight-line speed, a dash of slipperiness, and soft hands on the puck.
The problem was the degree of the softness.
It did Heinen no good that he could make plays when the puck was on his blade. Either he never got the puck, or it didn’t stay on his stick for long. Like most first- and second-year pros, Heinen learned in a hurry that NHL players make their livings by being hard on pucks. They are more wary of ceding control of the puck than they are about losing their wallets. Heinen’s fly-bys, lost battles, and one-and-done efforts would not be good enough to lead to extended NHL stays. He had to be harder on the puck if he wanted his varsity visits to last longer.
“A lot of the things he’s done well is his second and third effort on the puck,” Cassidy said. “Last year, he got pushed off early in the year. Whether that was strength, not knowing the league, not ready to compete, will — I don’t know why. I think it was just because he was new to the league and wasn’t physically ready for it and mentally. Now he knows what it requires. He’s adjusted well. I don’t think his talent level has changed a ton from last year. He was always a smart player, could make plays. That’s why he made our team out of training camp. He’s just developed more of, ‘Hey, it’s a man’s-league’ mentality. I’ve got to play harder and be stronger on the puck.’ ”
To Heinen, it’s been a change in attitude. At first, there were times he felt overwhelmed by the strength, nastiness, and professionalism of his opponents. But now that he’s been up for 12 straight games, the longest recall of his career, Heinen understands the significance of engaging in the battles.
Being hard on pucks is not easy. But part of the reason he’s found chemistry as a right wing with Tim Schaller and Sean Kuraly or as a left wing with the big boys is his willingness to play man’s hockey.
That approach, combined with his skill, should lead Heinen to deleting Providence from his GPS. He’s needed up top.