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Training Camp Battles: Dillon Heatherington Is NHL Ready But Is He NHL Quality?

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Dillon Heatherington unexpectedly became an important part of the AHL. Will that ever translate into an NHL career?

Team Canada v Team Russia

Sometimes, all it takes to replenish the prospect pool is a mixture of misery and luck.

Thanks to a dumpster fire of a season, Dallas is now a much better team when it comes to the future of its blueline. But we’ll talk about Miro Heiskanen later.

Dillon Heatherington wasn't supposed to be a Dallas Star. He was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets (50th overall), and ended up as an afterthought by CBJ when Dallas began to struggle, and traded Lauri Korpikoski in exchange for Heatherington.

Korpikoski was just another depth forward for Dallas last season. CBJ, presumably, saw something more.

Maybe it was addition by subtraction. CBJ didn’t expect Heatherington to crack their lineup, and needed to make room for other defensive prospects. These things do happen. Granted, I think Dallas would like for these things to happen to Dallas. Nonetheless, the trade felt like something for nothing in a season devoid of anything.

Heatherington has yet to set skate in the NHL. But in the AHL, he's been a top four mainstay for the Cleveland Monsters and recently, the Texas Stars. With 14 points in 60 games, Heathington's style speaks for itself. He's not gonna pinch for a high octane offensive zone rush, or threaten spectators with a slapshot through the plexiglass.

Thanks to analytics, stay-at-home defensemen are suddenly developing a different, less enamoring reputation. If you're good in your own zone, maybe it's because you're spending too much in your own zone. Maybe it pays to be offensively minded because it allows you to think creatively, as forwards do. Maybe it pays to handle the puck the way forwards do so you can more effectively exit the zone.

But there's something to be said for the logic of intuition. Surely being good in the defensive zone has value, whether in a vacuum (blocking a shot from a high danger area), or as part of a player’s broader profile like Christopher Tanev, Vlasic, and Ekholm. And indeed it does.

Heathington's game is very similar to Patrik Nemeth. With good agility for his size, he uses his legs and his frame to shield the puck from the forecheck in order to move up ice as quick as possible. In the above gif, he does a good job of using his winger (former Texas Star, Matej Stransky) to synchronize the breakout. It’s nothing special, but you don’t always need to look extraordinary in order to be effective.

He doesn't have a blistering first step, or brilliant vision breaking out of the zone but Heatherington is calm under pressure, and knows how to break out of the zone in different ways in case he's pressured. He never really plays into his weaknesses either. A smooth lateral skater with brilliant edgework might do too much on this play - carrying it up ice or looking for a stretch pass, but Dillon, who has decent acceleration for his size, uses straight lines at all times, racing to the puck and moving the puck north for the open man.

This is a very Kurt Saxon way of springing a two-on-one, but Gurianov and Stransky weren’t complaining.

I would never call Heatherington a blueliner with “vision” (from a hockey standpoint of course; whether he’s next in line for the Star Wars director’s chair is unbeknownst to me), but he’s aware of the play in front of him, never anticipating too early or too late. His defense could best be described as ‘reactionary’, for lack of a better term.

Heatherington has been called the most "NHL ready" by most of the Stars beat writers. Watching Heatherington, I believe this reflects the safety of his game rather than the quality. That doesn't mean safety can't be an element of quality. But he'll need to be more than 'safe' to enter a defensive prospect pool finally beginning to simmer.