June 17th, 2019, is a hard date for me. It will go down as the day franchise cornerstone Jacob Trouba was traded to the New York Rangers in exchange for Neal Pionk and the 20th overall pick in the 2018-19 NHL draft. Obviously, losing a top-pairing right-handed blueliner who provides as much value as Trouba does is nigh impossible to replace. That said, Winnipeg took a stab on a Finnish teenager who’s rapidly climbed the ranks among scouting reports. Ville Heinola, of Lukko, adds to the Jets’ growing stable of skaters from one of the happiest countries in the world. Just what makes Heinola such a well-regarded prospect?
From the limited footage available, the first word I associate with Heinola is “clean”. Ville is an intelligent skater who doesn’t possess the most robust of physical toolsets. Given that Heinola only turned 18 a few months ago, this isn’t terribly surprising. What should be shocking is that Heinola graduated from the U20 Finnish circuit to the Liiga professional league at the age of 17. Defensemen in Europe typically don’t make the jump to adult men’s hockey this quickly, so Heinola’s ascendance is immediately impressive.
As a member of the pro-tier Lukko squad, Ville was remarkably productive for a kid. He posted 2 goals and 12 assists in the regular season (34 games played) before adding 1 goal and 3 assists in the postseason (7 games played). While Heinola posted more than his fair share of contributions on the power play, he was still averaging nearly 20 minutes a game as the season wore on. It’s clear Lukko entrusted a lot of responsibility to the young defenseman, and that speaks volumes about Heinola’s individual ability.
Ville is a talented prospect, but the most criticized aspect of his ability remains his skating. His acceleration and top speed are not at the level of elite skaters, but his stride is smooth and efficient. Heinola also has excellent lateral edgework, and he compensates for his lack of footspeed with smart positioning and anticipation of where play will develop next. On the power play, he often intercepted puck clearances for zone keeps and maneuvered himself into better shooting or passing lanes near the faceoff circles. Heinola’s stickhandling allowed him to patiently collapse below the faceoff dots, drawing penalty killers into his trap before he ripped a shot far-side, or passed to the low-slot triggerman.
Puck distribution and vision are, naturally, some of Ville’s strong suits. He appears to recognize good scoring opportunities before they fully develop and establishes calm, clean build-up play to orchestrate attacks from the rear. At even-strength, his passing allows for good offensive breakouts and zone transitions. Heinola is still quite young and will likely need to speed up his decision-making and execution of plays to a more NHL-caliber pace. Liiga affords him a lot of space, especially on the power play, but his current trajectory is very, very positive. Heinola is remarkably intelligent, and that can get a defenseman a lot of mileage when other physical traits are a bit lacking.
In many ways, Heinola’s execution and tidiness tend to remind me of Tobias Enstrom. He’s not a flashy blueliner with high-end offensive instincts like Quinn Hughes, but his play-reading ability and vision compensate for his shortcomings. At the 20th pick, I couldn’t be happier with the selection. Ville is likely tracking towards a high-end second-pairing defenseman, but his draft year scoring suggests he may have an even higher ceiling. He’s one of the highest scoring draft-year defensemen in Liiga history, and it’s amazing that he accomplished so much before he turned 18. I have great expectations for Heinola, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s eventually spoken of in the same breath as Josh Morrissey.
Winnipeg needed to hit a homerun with the draft pick it received back from the Rangers. Given the names on the board, the Jets couldn’t have done much better than selecting Ville Heinola. The teenager shows a maturity and skill beyond his years, and physical development may unlock a higher tier of play we’ve yet to see. I don’t want to oversell Heinola yet, but there’s a lot to like here.