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Bruins' unheralded draft pick turning heads in college

by Matt Kalman

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- The road to being the leading scorer among NCAA sophomores this season looks cleared for Denver University's Danton Heinen, a Boston Bruins prospect.

Center Jack Eichel, whose 71 points for Boston University led freshmen last season, was selected by the Buffalo Sabres with the No. 2 pick at the 2015 NHL Draft last month and recently signed his first professional contract.

Forward Dylan Larkin also left school for the pros after he finished second among freshmen with 47 points for the University of Michigan. Larkin joined the Detroit Red Wings, who picked him 15th at the 2014 draft, this spring.

Heinen, who the Bruins drafted in the fourth round (No. 116) in 2014, was the third-leading scorer among freshmen. The right wing led the Pioneers with 45 points and he's planning to try to better that when he returns to school.

The departure of the stiffest competition among players in his class left a void for Heinen to fill, but he isn't giddy about Eichel and Larkin vacating the spotlight.

"I don't know; it's good for them," Heinen said. "Everybody wants to play in the NHL. But I'm just going to try and have as good a year as I can."

His preparation for his pivotal sophomore season and possibly a pro career beyond that began when he took part in Bruins development camp at Ristuccia Arena. Heinen was unable to leave school because of a visa issue last summer, so this was his first such camp.

Although Heinen said he didn't mind flying under the radar with Eichel and Larkin taking NCAA hockey by storm last season, the 6-foot, 165-pound native of Langley, British Columbia, kept an eye on his high-profile freshmen competitors.

"I kind of looked at them, and they obviously had great years," he said. "I kind of wanted to chase them all year. But I did my thing."

Maybe Heinen doesn't crave attention because he's used to not receiving much. He wasn't drafted by the Western Hockey League and played a season with the Surrey of the British Columbia Hockey League and had 61 points in 57 games for the Eagles.

He was already 18 years old when he caught the attention of Denver and decided it would be best to advance his career at a U.S. college.

"When I was like 16, I was pretty small. I never really got an opportunity at the WHL," said Heinen, who turned 20 earlier this month and is 6-foot, 165 pounds. "So I kind of … it was the right road for me. I was a little bit of a late bloomer. So it was just the best spot for me."

Heinen's production with Surrey was enough to convince Boston to draft him. Then he went out and made the Bruins look like geniuses; Heinen had 45 points (16 goals) in 40 games, mostly on Denver's top line with Trevor Moore and Daniel Doremus, to finish tied for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference lead and help Denver advance to the NCAA quarterfinals.

Based on one season, Heinen made a lot of NHL teams regret passing on him in the draft and readjusted some of the Bruins' expectations.

"I don't know if we were surprised, but when you see that, you open your eyes," Bruins development coach Jay Pandolfo said. "You think maybe he's closer than further away for sure. He had a great year last year.

"Now sometimes sophomore year can be a little tougher. Guys kind of know how he plays now, and it'll be a little harder for him. So it'll be interesting to see how he does this year. But the way he looks out there right now, I mean he's headed in the right direction. He's another guy that's gotten stronger."

Pandolfo praised Heinen's poise with the puck, release and shot, and singled him out among the large group of prospects in the camp for making things look easy. But Pandolfo also said Heinen needs to get stronger and a little bigger.

"I think I need to put on some size, try to get stronger in the gym and work on my first few steps, try to get a little bit quicker," Heinen said.

The Bruins have improved their depth at forward since drafting Heinen. They won the bidding for free agent left wing Matt Beleskey earlier this month and traded for right wing Jimmy Hayes. They used two of their three first-round picks in 2015 to draft forwards Zachary Senyshyn and Jake DeBrusk.

That doesn't mean Heinen's being crowded out, but that the Bruins can afford to be patient with his development.

"I don't think right now I want to put a projection on when he's going to be here," Pandolfo said. "He's only going be a sophomore at Denver. He had a great year as a freshman last year. The same thing with everyone else; we just want to kind of let him develop and be patient with him. If we feel like he's ready, that's when we'll take the next step with him. But right now he's developing the right way."

Whether Heinen will remain patient remains to be seen. Another big college season might lead to him signing a pro contract this time next year. However, he said he doesn't plan to treat this season different than any other, even if it might be his last as an amateur.

"I just keep trying to do the same things, keep trying to get better every day, and I think it will take care of itself," Heinen said.

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