Dany Heatley is a low-risk fit who could help the Ducks

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My first impression when I heard Dany Heatley was nearing a deal with the Anaheim Ducks was not favorable. A lot of that is based on his reputation — older hockey fans have an acute memory about the accident in Atlanta that claimed the life of teammate Dan Snyder. It was something that created enough of a black cloud that the Thrashers traded him to the Ottawa Senators. When he requested a trade from Ottawa, he was destroyed in the media and painted as a difficult personality. (The flood of players abandoning ship in Canada’s capital since then has begun to shift that perception that it’s a player-centric problem and perhaps more of an organizational one.)

When the terms of Heatley’s deal with the Ducks were announced — one year for $1 million — I was less frustrated the team had signed him and more concerned about where he would fit: whose roster spot he would take, his presence in the room, etc. After poring over numbers from the bottom half of Anaheim’s lineup and crunching some of Heatley’s figures, I’ve made peace with the signing. He is, if nothing else, an incredibly low-risk addition.

WATCH: This is every goal Dany Heatley scored in 2013-14

Several ex-NHLers who know Heatley have nothing but praise for his work ethic, determination and desire to help his team win. I normally take these sorts of things in stride, because there tends to be a bit of a boys’ club mentality fostered among players and ex-players. But those comments do carry some credible weight, so I am less inclined to be concerned about any potential off-ice baggage Heatley could bring to Anaheim.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Then there’s the fact that the tale of the tape, statistically speaking, for Anaheim’s bottom-six forward group is not pretty. This is a top-heavy team that is overly reliant on a few elite producers to win games. If Heatley might take someone’s spot, it’s probably fair given his cost. Heatley’s numbers also aren’t pretty, but neither are those of the wingers who aren’t destined to play on the top two lines. As a bonus, Heatley is a natural left winger, which is a hole the organization has had trouble filling in recent years.

Dany Heatley the hockey player is no longer a prolific goal scorer. Ever since his shoulder injury in the 2007-08 season, he’s been far less effective. His stop in San Jose might have masked his decline, and his stats in Minnesota fell off to the point where it looks like he’s no longer a contributing force on the ice (although Minnesota’s roster was not one of the league’s best from 2011 to 2014).

We’ll start by comparing Heatley’s time in Minnesota with his time in San Jose. While there’s an extra season with the Wild, the sample is closer in size due to the shortened 2012-13 season:

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heatley2

Heatley was clearly more productive in San Jose, but the trend in his underlying numbers was more or less the same. He’s never been a strong defensive player, but on a better team his FA20 (Fenwick against per 20 minutes) was minimized. In his first season in San Jose, he was still a negative possession player overall. He was positive in his second season, which made his total look a bit more robust. On both teams, he contributed significantly toward shot attempts with on the power play, which is an area the Ducks need to improve (power play effectiveness, if not strictly shot generation).

Here’s a look at Heatley’s Minnesota and San Jose numbers overlaid on the same chart:

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His decline had been trending at a relatively steady rate, which means there could be some merit to the argument that 2013-14 was a down season for him. The dip in his point total last season could indicate some bad luck, rather than the fact he’s completely washed up. If this is the case, Anaheim would still be getting a player who’s on the decline, but could still produce at a stronger clip than in 2013-14 (12 goals, 16 assists).

Let’s jump back to Heatley’s tenure in Minnesota. Below is a list of all of the players with whom he played more than 15 minutes with over the past three seasons. The charts show WOWY (with or without you) zone-adjusted CF% (Corsi for percentage) numbers — the together number shows the team’s Corsi % (share of all shot attempts for both teams) while the two were on the ice at the same time; the Heatley stat is the same number but when Heatley is not on the ice with that particular teammate; the teammate number is the same value but measured when that player is on the ice while Heatley is not. In general, it’s a quick way to see ifa player is truly driving positive play for his team, if he’s a passenger on a good line or if he’s a boat anchor that’s hurting his team.

heatley4-2011WOWY heatley5-2012WOWY heatley6-2013WOWY

One thing that jumps out from those numbers: Heatley was pretty effective in 2011-12. His seasons since Ryan Suter was added to the mix have seen a downturn. There’s probably some systemic cause for this, as Suter and Heatley played the same side of the ice — this sort of thing would affect breakouts (ergo, shot suppression). Suter has always been an interesting player to the stats community because his advanced statistical numbers are never especially great, which could have theoretically had a negative impact on Heatley’s metrics.

One other thing from Heatley’s two most recent seasons seasons in Minnesota stands out: he had some positive pairings with guys. If he finds chemistry with his centers in Anaheim, he could still be capable of providing a net benefit to a line. This already makes him more of a known quantity than some of the young players the team has penciled in right now.

Finally, it’s worth trying to get a sense of Heatley’s possession relative to his team and his zone starts last season. Something like this could illuminate whether his more beneficial average starting position on the ice helped him relative to those who are getting less favorable deployment.

To do this, we can look at Heatley’s relative Corsi percentage (CF% Rel.) compared to the percentage of non-netural zone face-offs taken in the offensive zone (ZS%). The best players at moving the needle on possession will have more dots on the right side (indicating better Corsi numbers than teammates no matter where they start on the ice).

heatley7-2013-CFrel-ZS heatley8-2013-CFrel-ZS

The numbers on the upper portion of the chart (more offensive zone starts) should be trending right much more frequently. More starts in the opponent’s end should result in a player with offensive instincts helping to generate more shots than his teammates on other lines. Without expertise in the minutia of the Minnesota Wild, it’s hard to say anything conclusively, although it might help to see a more detailed breakdown of Heatley’s linemates throughout the season. Did he see a lot of his favorable starts with Suter, for instance? There’s something about Suter that tends to bring down players’ possession numbers, it would seem.

For $1 million, the deal is not as bad as the Clayton Stoner signing. Heatley will not likely take a lineup spot from anybody truly more worthy of it, and he might provide a benefit to the power play, if in no other way than helping it generate more shots. It’s quite possible his prior  shoulder injury altered his overall effectiveness, but there’s always a possibility that on a Ducks roster that could be a little stronger up front than that of the Wild over the past three years, Heatley could produce modest numbers for his equally modest cost.

If this deal happened before the Ducks signed Stoner, fans might well have been more amenable to the Heatley signing. As it stands, he is a low-risk investment with the potential to produce economical returns if he commits to better conditioning, stays healthy and is used properly on the ice.

There are still questions to be answered and the reward is certainly not guaranteed, but the bet seems a reasonable one for Anaheim to make.