No I don’t intend this to be a series.
But Dallas didn’t intend to win the draft lottery either. And yet here we are. There aren’t rumblings about Miro Heiskanen making the NHL next season. More like itches.
Mike Heika is calling Heiskanen that “rare franchise player”.
And with an opportunity at training camp, there’s always the potential to “pull a Mattias Janmark”. Though unlikely, especially with all the defensemen already under contract, if you’re in win now mode, Jim Nill would be delighted rather than disappointed if his first round pick is NHL ready just a few months after being legally able to get married and open a bank account (though hopefully not in that order).
Rather than focus on where he slots, or make a veiled case that he’s NHL ready (as I did with Gurianov), let’s focus on what Heiskanen can do, shift by shift.
In recent years, defensemen have been lumped into two categories: stay at home, and puck movers. Either you’re mobile, and offensive like Erik Karlsson. Or you’re slow and block shots like Brooks Orpik.
Heiskanen is that breath of fresh air that avoids obvious comparisons or archetypes. He’s a defenseman first and foremost.
With the premium on speed in the modern NHL, playing well in your own zone is less about nasty little crosschecks in the corners, crease clearing, and blocking shots, and more about using movement to counterattack.
In that respect, Heiskanen projects to be an impact player.
Here Heiskanen displays what makes him a top tier talent. The word commonly associated with him is “poise”. Not only does he calmly evade an aggressive forecheck but more impressively, he finds the open lane right away to the winger at the top of the right circle for a swift zone exit.
Heiskanen is not an afterburner, per se. He’s fast, and agile. But after watching more tape I’ve come to realize that he has sneaky good acceleration.
The neutral zone is critical to modern defense. It’s generally the spot involving the most structured plays and systems because there’s nothing to deviate from it. No odd rebounds or races to to the corners to immediately reverse fortunes. Heiskanen sees the open lane to rush up ice, and takes it, protecting the puck well for a seamless transition.
Critics of the pick, and yes that includes me, were wary of Heiskanen’s “hype”. He was a late riser, and the last time Dallas went cuckoo for Cocoa puffs on a prospect with a good U18 showing, they selected Jack Campbell over-well you know the story.
Finland played USA at the U18 World Championship, and got smashed. The USA squad was stacked with draft eligible and non draft-eligible talents like Ryan Poehling, Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, David Farrance, and Grant Mismash (a great name made obsolete by Blade Mann-Dixon).
I didn’t need Craig Button to talk up Heiskanen, but it was still nice to hear Button observe his strengths during a game Finland otherwise faltered in.
Brady Tkachuk will be an impact first round player in the 2018 NHL draft. Tkachuk actually makes a nice play here to lift Heiskanen’s stick as he swings toward he outside. But Heiskanen anticipates it, chips it forward and separates quickly to flow through the neutral for the dump-in.
To the extent that “poise” has any meaning beyond what is sometimes just a buzzword, being able to transition is probably a good measure. One NHL scout was more blunt.
He transitions the puck better than anyone in the draft, thinks quick and executes well.
Watching full games in the U18 made me appreciate Heiskanen’s game more than I previously considered. Small sample sizes are not always outliers. Sometimes they’re markers for broader trends. Being a late riser isn’t some kind of prima facie red flag. Nico Hischier was ranked in the teens earlier in 2017, yet you’d be hard pressed to argue that his rank was superficial or unearned. Go to any January list of an older NHL draft and you’ll notice risers and fallers in retrospect. It doesn’t mean players ended up ‘out of order’.
But with all this talk of defense and poise, is Heiskanen nothing more than a high floor good-at-home blueliner?
One of the reasons why Heiskanen became a lock for top ten is that he’s guaranteed to be a quality blueliner. But he’s never been a lock to project as a perennial 40 point machine from the blueline.
Heiskanen’s performance at the U18 World Juniors was likely a catalyst for his rise. Not only did he produce. But he produced at a historic rate, becoming one of the highest scoring defensemen for a U18 World Junior defenseman ever. Still, it’s just one tournament.
In Liiga, Heiskanen tallied 10 points in 37 games. That's not a lot but they never are in a defense heavy league like the Finnish Elite. On the contrary, his 10 points marked the first time since 1991 that a U18 defensemen scored double digits there.
That doesn’t mean his offensive ceiling is high. It just means he’s shown flashes of being able to produce, but it’s not a point of emphasis. He doesn’t have a puck rattling slapshot, or Esa Lindell’s ginsu sharp wrister.
What he does do is walk the blueline and find open lanes with his footwork.
Heiskanen likes to drop low for opportunities. Here he uses his speed well to activate and even has the vision to find the open man across the crease.
It’s impossible to predict his production at the NHL level but it looks like he’d have to actively sabotage himself to top out at 20 points a season.
This particular example is probably more luck and bad defense than supernatural passing, but it still speaks to Heiskanen’s ability to generate offense with poised aggression and broad vision.
Judging by the tape, Heiskanen is at his most efficient beginning from his own zone onward. As Steve Kournianos noted:
His impeccable positioning, especially on the penalty kill, is just one of the many reasons why he was entrusted with critical situations despite being one of the youngest players in Finland’s top league
Development camp isn’t exactly a peer reviewed journal that determines potential, but it’s still nice to see him doing what he does best even in camp.
A small sample of Miro Heiskanen at Development Camp this morning. pic.twitter.com/w3wc0o2j6V— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) July 10, 2017
There is, frankly, an endless list of things Heiskanen does well in this clip: reflecting Roope Hintz’ movement, the leverage of his bodyweight in close, the puck movement back to the board to untangle the rubik’s cube of humanity in front of the net. And so on.
Dallas had a good offseason. Good enough to be declared winners of the offseason. Which is tantamount to your mother’s condescending pat on the head for not burning down the house after microwaving a GI Joe. But after last season, you take what you can get. Where Dallas really shined was at the draft. Because that’s where you pick up players not for mere term. But for the future. And Heiskanen will be a critical part of it.