Revisiting the Miro Heiskanen Selection

Forget the typical drafting issues. The Stars’ front office deserves full credit for picking their future franchise defenseman.

This weekend, Miro Heiskanen will be representing the Dallas Stars at the 2019 NHL All Star Game in San Jose. He is one of only two rookies to achieve that honor this year, along with fellow 2017 NHL Draft pick Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks.

It should go without saying that Heiskanen deserved this recognition. The Finnish defenseman has 20 points in 49 games and is third on the team in average time on ice with 23:06, behind only John Klingberg and Esa Lindell. Heiskanen already looks he’ll be a franchise defenseman for Dallas, and he’s only 19 years old. Considering how the Stars have missed big on some of their other recent first rounders, that’s incredible news.

Of course, not everyone is ready to praise GM Jim Nill and his scouting team for picking Heiskanen. In fact, the more Heiskanen seems to impress the fans, the more I see comments or tweets that tend to look like this:

“Nill doesn’t really deserve credit for the Heiskanen pick. The Stars got lucky when they won the lottery and shot up to the third pick. Miro just fell into his lap!”

The problem with this line of thinking it’s that it’s only half true. Yes, the Stars were very fortunate to win the lottery and pick third overall. But make no mistake: Heiskanen wasn’t some “no-brainer” that the Stars “couldn’t screw up.”

So let’s revisit the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, and see why the Stars’ front office deserves full credit for choosing Heiskanen with their highest draft pick since Mike Modano.

The Top Prospects

In recent years, each draft has had two top players who were considered a cut above the rest. In 2015, it was Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, followed by Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine the next year. This past draft was headlined by Rasmus Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov, and 2019 should be no different with Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko.

The 2017 NHL Draft was similar, yet different. Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick sat alone as the consensus top two players, all but guaranteed to be taken by the New Jersey Devils (No. 1) and Philadelphia Flyers (No. 2) in either order. However, neither prospect was viewed as highly as any of the players previously mentioned. There was often talk about how the draft lacked a “franchise player,” a sentiment that ultimately created the false narrative that this was a weak draft class.

The truth was that while there weren’t a McDavid or a Matthews, the draft had several quality first round prospects. It was fairly deep at the top of the draft, and players who would be likely taken in the Nos. 10-15 range arguably were just as good as those taken in the Nos. 5-10 range. This made things rather difficult for those who didn’t hold one of the top two picks: there was no clear cut No. 3, or even a Top Five or Top 10, after Hischier and Patrick.

There was often talk about how the draft lacked a “franchise player,” a sentiment that ultimately created the false narrative that this was a weak draft class.

For example, the eventual third overall pick, Miro Heiskanen, was not the clear-cut, consensus top defenseman. He was fighting for that distinction along with Cale Makar, who ended up getting taken by the Colorado Avalanche at No. 4 immediately afterwards.

Here’s Derek’s profile of Makar he wrote back in May of that year. In it, he talks about Makar’s gifted offensive ability, due in large part to fantastic skating and puck control. He listed Erik Karlsson as a comparable, and that wasn’t just wishful thinking. In fact, in his final mock draft for ESPN, Corey Pronman thought that Makar would be the first name off the board:

The popular notion for months has been that it is Nolan Patrick vs. Nico Hischier for this spot. But in the past few weeks, it has been indicated to me from several NHL sources that the Devils are leaning toward selecting Makar first overall. Moreover, GM Ray Shero has been following Makar around to get a closer look during the final weeks of his season.

Heiskanen meanwhile was more of a late riser, rocketing up the draft boards as June 23 drew closer and closer. In Derek’s profile of the HIFK defenseman, he talked about his excellent two-way game and compared him to Duncan Keith, who isn’t as “sexy” as Karlsson but still a Norris Trophy winner. There was concern that he was being overrated based on a single tournament — giving many Stars fans nightmare flashbacks to the Jack Campbell selection — but most scouts believed he was the real deal.

Of course for Dallas, Heiskanen versus Makar might have never been much of a debate. The Stars’ right side of the blue line looked — at the time — set for the foreseeable future, with John Klingberg emerging as a Norris contender, Stephen Johns developing as a reliable second-pair defenseman, and Julius Honka ready to take the world by storm as a rookie. Factor in that Makar was right-handed and played an offensive game similar to Klingberg and Honka, as well as the recent appointment of the defensive-minded Ken Hitchcock as head coach, and Makar didn’t make much sense for Dallas.

So maybe Heiskanen was the easy pick. If they were going for defensemen, that is. And as it turns out, there was good reason for them not too...

Absurd Center Depth

Heading into the 2017 Draft, the Stars had a huge hole in their pipeline; they needed a future No. 2 center to slot in behind Tyler Seguin. Jason Spezza had just turned 34, and while they had some decent prospects at center, none carried true top-six playmaking potential.

Luckily for the Stars, the draft was deep down the middle. And I don’t mean “there were a couple of quality guys.” The center talent available in the first round was absolutely ridiculous. Out of the top 13 picks in the draft, only three did not play center: Heiskanen, Makar, and Owen Tippet (10th overall). That’s it.

After Hischier and Patrick at the top of the draft, you had prospects such as Gabe Vilardi, Elias Pettersson, Casey Mittelstadt, Cody Glass, and several others. There were even quality centers found late in the first, such as Robert Thomas (20th) and Morgan Frost (27th). If you needed help down the middle, the 2017 first round was open season.

That was good new for the Stars, who were originally slated to pick eighth overall. It became even better news once the Stars won the lottery and moved up to the third pick. Now they wouldn’t have to hope “their guy” fell to them; they were all but guaranteed anyone they wanted not named Hischier or Patrick.

Out of the top 13 picks in the draft, only three did not play center: Heiskanen, Makar, and Tippet. That’s it.

In fact, when it came to SB Nation’s annual NHL Mock Draft, the Defending Big D team didn’t pick Heiskanen. The choice was Mittelstadt, who ended up going eighth overall — the Stars’ original spot — to the Buffalo Sabres. You can read David’s profile of him here to see glimpses of why he was eventually considered a top-five prospect by both Pronman and Scott Wheeler heading into this season.

As far as other options go, Glass was one of the more popular candidates floating around the DBD comments section. And since the Stars like looking at European players, you can’t help but wonder if Pettersson was near the top of their list too.

The point is, at third overall, the Stars had a very good crop of players to choose from. Of course, that assumed they’d stay put at No. 3...

The Trade Scenarios

It feels like ages ago, but the general consensus across the NHL media after the 2016-17 season is that the Stars were much better than their record indicated. This was a team that was one year removed from the best record in the West and only one game away from a Conference Final appearance. Their lack of success in 2016-17 could be largely attributed to being decimated by injuries before the season even began, thanks to the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

In addition, they were bringing back Ken Hitchcock, widely respected as capable of quickly turning teams around, and finally fixed their goaltending issues by trading for Ben Bishop. And so with no clear-cut No. 3 prospect behind Hischier and Patrick, many believed the Stars were uniquely positioned as a team with a high draft pick who could afford to trade down in return for some immediate help. For instance, that future No. 2 center they needed, only one that could make an impact right away.

However, trading down wasn’t the only option. The Stars were also in a good spot to even move up to first overall. As mentioned earlier, there was heavy talk that the New Jersey Devils were interested in taking Cale Makar. Ideally, the best way to do that would be to trade down from No. 1 to gain some extra picks or prospects and take him then.

The problem with that was there was also talk that the Avalanche were also very interested in Makar — which proved true when they drafted him — meaning they couldn’t afford to move down past No. 4. Even if they traded directly with Colorado and the latter picked Hischier or Patrick at No. 1 instead, there was still no guarantee that Dallas would pass on Makar. Or, perhaps more realistically, that someone else would trade up to No. 3 and take him before the Devils could.

Trading down wasn’t the only option. The Stars were also in a good spot to even move up to first overall.

So if the Devils wanted to trade down and still more-or-less guarantee themselves Makar, then they had to trade with Dallas. But the Stars had more reason to trade down, not up, which meant that such a trade was highly unlikely.

Enter the Vegas Golden Knights. Coming fresh off of their expansion draft, there was talk that the Golden Knights were trying hard to move up from sixth overall to first or second so they could select Nolan Patrick. The Devils were unlikely to move down to sixth for the reasons listed above, and the Flyers were better suited to just stay put and take either Hischier or Patrick to help get them over the playoff hump.

Thus emerged a three-way trade scenario involving the Devils, Stars, and Golden Knights. The idea was that Vegas would trade up to No. 3 in a deal that would likely center around Marc Methot. That seems incredibly stupid now, but remember that their asking price for Methot was originally a first round pick. So at the time, it was only normally stupid.

Anyways, after moving up to the third pick, the Golden Knights would trade up to first overall with the Devils. Thus, the top five would have likely ended up as the following:

  1. VGK - Nolan Patrick (C)
  2. PHI - Nico Hischier (C)
  3. NJD - Cale Makar (D)
  4. COL - Miro Heiskanen (D)
  5. VAN - Elias Pettersson (C)

Both Vegas and New Jersey would have gotten “their guys,” and the Stars would have still had their pick of almost any center they wanted, with only Pettersson off the list. Sounds like a match made in heaven, right?

Well as we all know, it never happened. Maybe it’s because Dallas didn’t like the return offered from Vegas. Perhaps the Devils liked Makar, but still liked Hischier more. Or it’s possible that such a deal was never even discussed, and existed only in the minds of trade-hungry hockey fans and writers.

Either way, the Devils stayed at No. 1 and picked Hischier, the Flyers took Patrick at No. 2, and we all know what happened next...

The Pick

Despite the immense talent available at center, the Stars decided to shore up the left side of their blue line by selecting Miro Heiskanen from Finland. Later that day, the Stars traded up a few spots to take goaltender Jake Oettinger at No. 26, and on Sunday picked winger Jason Robertson at No. 39. They ended up picking two centers in later rounds, but ultimately didn’t fill that hole until one year later when they picked Ty Dellandrea 13th overall at the 2018 NHL Draft.

That being said, it’s hard to fault the Stars for going with Heiskanen. Sure, it’d be fun to imagine Elias Pettersson in Victory Green. However, as we led off with, Heiskanen already looks like a franchise defenseman and could be theoretically getting Norris votes before he’s legally allowed to drink in the US. He has the potential to be one of the best — if not the best — players from his draft class.

With that in mind, I’m going to finish off with this:

At the time, most people, myself included, believed this to be hogwash, that Shapiro was hearing classic GM-speak. After all, it seems that every GM who picks in the top five each year gets “their guy.”

Now? I think I actually believe it.