Name: Ville Heinola
Team: Lukko (Liiga)
Stats: 34 games played, 2 goals, 12 assists, 14 points, 26 PIMs, +7 plus/minus rating
NHL Central Scouting ranking: 4th (European Skaters)
Comparable NHL player: Josh Morrissey
Sometimes you really need to go over a prospect’s game with a fine-tooth comb before you can fully appreciate just how talented they are.
Finnish defenseman Ville Heinola fits this bill, and the extra time needed to properly appreciate his game might make him something of an “off the board” pick in the 2019 draft.
When Heinola’s team is playing, you have to make a bit of an effort to notice him out on the ice. He’s undersized for a defenseman, at 5-foot-11, and he’s not a dynamic skater or puck handler like some other highly-touted defensive prospects that are his size.
His skating isn’t bad, per se. He has strong edges, good balance, clean crossovers, and a quick first couple steps, but it’s his top gear and separation speed that limit him. That being said, though, his stride mechanics are good, so adding more leg strength and power as he gets older could help a lot in this area.
What Heinola has in spades, though, is hockey sense.
Just how good is that hockey sense? Good enough to play 34 games in Finland’s top league as a 17-year-old, averaging an impressive 18:54 per game of ice time and logging a lot of minutes on his team’s power play. It was also good enough to punch up a weight class and play in the World Juniors as one of the youngest players in the event, cracking a Finnish blue line over some very good competition.
That element of his game doesn’t immediately jump out at you at first glance, but when you start watching Heinola closely you see all the little things that he does right — over and over and over again. Deceptive head fakes and look-offs to disguise the target of passes, smart little passes to his defense partner in tight spaces to alleviate forecheck pressure and good stick positioning to deflect pucks out of trouble are just some examples of what he does well.
While his type of playing style might not be the most exciting to watch, it often translates well to the NHL (just as it is already translating well to the Liiga). What he lacks in size and a top skating gear he more than makes up for with his astute decision making, near-perfect positioning, crisp puck movement, and active stick.
The big question about Heinola is just how much will his game continue to grow as he develops and gets older?
On one hand, the growth potential isn’t obvious because he doesn’t seem to have the best physical tools. He’s not going to add, say, a major physical element or a booming slap shot to his repertoire as he gets older.
And yet, on the other hand, you can never really count out the potential of prospects who think the game as well as Heinola does. If he’s already brought his game this far along at 18 years of age, there’s a chance that he could really master the elements of his game that he does possess. What does that look like at the NHL level? A player who quarterbacks a power play, plays a mistake-free defensive game and drives puck possession — pretty impressive.
One NHL scout, speaking anonymously to The Hockey News for their annual draft feature, called Heinola a “poor man’s Miro Heiskanen.” That’s lofty praise.
Heinola hasn’t generated the most of draft buzz this season, but make no mistake: he’s pretty close in terms of potential with other top puck-moving defensemen such as Cam York, Thomas Harley, and Victor Soderstrom. His ceiling might not be as high as these other three, but he looks like the safest pick out of the group, and there’s value in that.
The left-shooting Heinola is far from the type of player that the Dallas Stars need in their prospect pool right now, given that they already have Heiskanen in the organization, but with just how great Heiskanen already looks in Dallas, it would be a pretty tempting notion to bring in “Miro Heiskanen Lite” as well.