Hockey Wilderness is counting down the Minnesota Wild’s Top-10 Prospects, as voted by our staff. Today, we give you everything you need to know about our No. 8 prospect, Riley Heidt.
Top Gun's Lieutenant Pete "Maverick" Mitchell possesses incredible natural talents, which manifests in a deep-seated inclination to do things his own way. He frustrates his superiors with his penchant for insubordination, only to prove himself right time and time again.
In many ways, that’s the best outcome for Minnesota Wild prospect Riley Heidt.
Hockey has always come naturally to Heidt. He stickhandles with casual artistry, sees the ice at a truly elite level in the offensive zone, and has the “I’ve been on skates as long as I could walk” story typical of an NHL draftee. Just as flying runs in Maverick’s family, hockey runs in Heidt’s. His mother, sister, and brother have all played collegiate or international hockey.
The clearest evidence of Heidt’s hockey background is his obvious comfort with the puck on his stick. He’s an excellent puck-handler and passer, and possesses an effective to above-average shot. He’s also a quick skater, which complements his hands and vision nicely.
There’s some real genius in Heidt’s hockey. The highlight reel above might have you falling for him already. It certainly takes my breath away.
His genius in the offensive zone jumps to another level on the power play, which is where he earns the bulk of his highlight reel clips. Aside from his soft passes, slick mitts, and an eye for passing lanes, Heidt is exceptionally intelligent away from the puck. He drifts away from the play to sneak away from defenders, then drives to the net with perfect timing or unleashes his underrated one-timer.
These tools led Heidt to claim the franchise record for assists last year for the Prince George Cougars. His 72 helpers came alongside 25 goals, which is excellent WHL production. NHL Equivalency (NHLe) is a statistic that translates scoring production from minor leagues to NHL point-scoring. By Byron Bader’s model, Heidt scored an NHLe of 35. While this only measures the offensive side of a player’s game, many notable draft steals performed similarly well in this statistic.
And yet, Heidt’s draft stock fell off drastically between the end of his WHL season and the NHL Draft. The plethora of offensive talents available this year may be one reason. Heidt’s 35-point equivalency was about 17th-best in an average draft. In 2023’s loaded class, he ranked somewhere in the late-20s. Heidt is primarily an offense-first player, so NHLe also overrates him if it’s not taken with further context. Even with a deep draft class, this isn’t enough to explain how Heidt dropped all the way to pick 64.
The Elite Prospects Draft guide highlights Heidt’s shortcomings succinctly:
Heidt’s profile aligns with that of a lot of really good junior players in the past who struggled to translate their game to the next level. Whether it’s the disproportionate amount of power play offense, the lack of more explosive outside edge skating maneuvers, wildly inconsistent play, and virtually no concern with playing [defense]
So, Heidt’s defensive game leaves most scouts wanting. Some scouts extend this criticism into speculation on Heidt’s overall level of competitiveness. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman, for example, said he has mediocre “compete” level. On the other hand, Elite Prospects compared Heidt to “Angry Nick Schmaltz” because of his enthusiasm for his pesky physicality. Some scouts note that he’s been suspended for two games over the last two seasons as evidence that he’s too competitive.
In many ways, Heidt evades statistical analysis. Scouts either fall in love with his upside or sour on his defensive game, and he’s projected at the extremes -- as a second-line center or a bust -- far more often than anywhere in between.
This is evident in Prashanth Iyer’s mock draft tracking project from this year. According to the drafts that were included in the study, Heidt should have been drafted around pick 28, with a 65% chance of being a first-rounder. By pick 45, Heidt had been selected in 90% of simulated drafts, which really underscores what a steal he is at pick 64.
Iyer averaged mock drafts over the 2022-23 season and projected Heidt would go around the range of Mikhail Gulyayev, Calum Ritchie, Quentin Musty, and Samuel Honzek. Note the wild spread of Heidt’s mock-draft slots compared to the other four:
What’s especially interesting about these charts, however, is that Heidt’s largest criticisms came in May and June, months after he was done playing for Prince George. During this period, he was playing on Canada’s U-18 World Junior team as a power play specialist. Although he was eventually benched in the bronze medal game, he ran Canada’s top power play unit throughout the tournament. It’s possible that after a 7-2 semi final loss to Sweden, Canada’s coaching staff was looking to send a message to close out that medal game.
Even with all these knocks, it takes some squinting to see how Heidt fell to pick 64. He carries some risk due to his defensive game and his slight build, but what does that mean at the NHL level? Heidt may have to move to the wing based on size and the defensive responsibilities of playing center. Scouts who criticize his defensive game tend to leave out two critical aspects of his play away from the puck: puck retrievals and forechecking.
Heidt has a knack for playing chess as F1 on the forecheck, forcing opponents to make the moves that help his four teammates in transition. When his man makes a mistake, Heidt quickly turns up-ice and punishes mistakes with his skill.
This effective forechecking is a great clapback against reports that Heidt’s scoring falls off at 5-on-5. Sure, his scoring slows down at even strength, but his transition defense is effective in a way that his critics don’t seem to give him credit for. Now is a good time to note that Prince George was no juggernaut -- they had depth problems when Heidt joined the team that carried into 2022-23. In-zone defense requires effective play from all five skaters. There’s an argument to be made that Heidt’s energy was better spent forechecking and scoring rather than chasing pucks around his own zone.
Heidt may be forced to move to the wing due to his in-zone defense, but that’s not a lock by any means. He’s made strides on his defensive game, which he revealed were purposeful in a recent interview with The Hockey News. Heidt seems to possess the forechecking talents to also be an effective forechecking winger. He’s credited as a very effective puck-retriever, absorbing contact when necessary and playing through the hands of defenders to generate space off of the boards.
Heidt’s harshest critics would admit his floor is a fourth-line power play specialist. Even if he has to move to the wing, that floor should have gotten him drafted sooner. The upside on Heidt is a high-end playmaking winger or second-line center who runs the power play from the half-boards. Something like prime Mikael Granlund is not an unreasonable outcome for Heidt. If his defensive game fills out, it’s no exaggeration to say Heidt’s ceiling is that of a top-line center.
Wild fans should hope that concerns about “compete” are meaningless scout-speak. NHL draftees are 18 years old, and they do a lot of growing up before they hit the league. Heidt has openly addressed his weaknesses and plans to get better at them. Even if he fails to do so, he has natural talents and hockey IQ that will always be valuable on an NHL ice rink.
Genius is often misunderstood until those without imagination see it in real time. Heidt may be dangerous, but he can be my wingman anytime.