Heiskanen Set to Shine for Stars

On Apr. 29, 2017, the Dallas Stars won the lottery. Quite literally. The 2017 NHL Draft Lottery was a lucky one for Jim Nill and the Stars front office. Initially slotted to pick No. 8 in the draft, Dallas was dealt a pretty solid hand (or lottery ball, rather). The winnings? The third overall pick, the highest draft position in Stars history and the highest selection in franchise history since the North Stars selected a franchise cornerstone with the first overall pick in 1988 in Mike Modano. With just a 5.8 percent chance of moving up, according to the pre-lottery odds, it was a big win for the Stars.

It was a highly unlikely and very lucky occurrence, much like – well I guess – winning the lottery. Dallas was certainly thanking its lucky stars. A little less than two months later, on June 23, the Stars cashed in on its lottery earnings and snagged a shiny new blue-chip prospect by the name of Miro Heiskanen.

For those of you unaware of who this is, well please allow me to punch your ticket as you hop aboard the Heiskanen hype train. This is your conductor speaking, welcome aboard. Today’s route will take us from Espoo, Finland to Dallas, Texas. Along the way, we’ll see breathtaking vistas of impressive play and awe-inspiring statistical numbers. In the event of an excitement-induced spell of hyperventilation, it is recommended you pinch yourself to confirm you are in fact not dreaming. Please sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

A Franchise Defenseman in the Making

Ok, I know what you’re thinking. He hasn’t even played a single game in the NHL yet. But hear me out.

Heiskanen really is that good.

The Espoo, Finland native has been playing in his hometown his whole life but has been capturing the attention of the entire hockey world. Since Heiskanen was 14, he’s been playing for HIFK, located in Finland’s capital city of Helsinki, roughly 21 kilometers (or about 13 miles) from his hometown. From the HIFK U16 squad to the big club in Liiga, Heiskanen quickly climbed up the ranks of the HIFK organization and developed into the youngest winner of the Pekka Rautakallio Award, given to the Liiga’s best defenseman. More on that later.

During the 2013-14 season, as a 14-year-old on HIFK’s U16 club, the young Finnish D-man notched 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 22 games, finishing the season as the second-best defenseman, statistically speaking, just four points shy of the defensive leader. The following season Heiskanen rejoined the U16 squad tallying two goals and two helpers but only appearing in nine games. Why only nine games? Well, the now-15-year-old Finn earned a promotion to the HIFK’s U18 club.

Miro Heiskanen, NHL, NHL Entry Draft
Heiskanen has thrived against older competition in Finland  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

The average age of Heiskanen’s newest team was 17, so the young D-man was playing well ahead of his age group, a trend that you’ll see continues for the budding Finnish superstar. In his 35 game stint with the U18’s, Heiskanen finished eighth on the squad with 20 points, notching seven goals and 13 assists.

Heiskanen started the 2015-16 season again with the U18 team and got off to a hot start, recording seven helpers in seven games before once more earning himself a call-up to the older squad. Now playing on a team with an average age of 19, the 16-year-old Heiskanen continued to show his worth. The young defenseman racked up three goals and 11 assists, good for fourth among the HIFK D-core, despite playing only the last half of the season. He was also a solid plus-14 for the campaign.

His season earned him a roster spot on both Finland’s U17 World Hockey Challenge team and the World Junior squad. In five games during the World Hockey Challenge, Heiskanen finished with four points (four assists) in five contests, good for a fifth-place finish (tied) among defensemen in the six-country tournament.

Heiskanen also partook in the U18 World Junior Championship and was the youngest member on the Finnish team. Heiskanen slotted in as one of the defenders in the top-four D pairings and helped the Finns capture the gold medal, recording one helper along the way.

For Heiskanen, it was all child’s play up to this point, despite being one himself. Now at the ripe age of 17, the excelling blueliner earned himself a promotion to the highest level of hockey in Finland, the Liiga.

To Liiga and Beyond

Now, this is where things start to get exciting.

During the 2016-17 season, Heiskanen started the season with HIFK in Liiga, the highest level of competition for the sport of ice hockey in the country of Finland. The coolest part about this: young Heiskanen made the squad as a 17-year-old. The average age on HIFK is 26.59, according to Elite Prospects.

As mentioned throughout the article, Heiskanen has been playing well above his age throughout his young career. And not only has he just been playing, he’s been performing well above his age too. In 37 games, the young Finn recorded five goals and matched that with five assists, good for a top-3 finish among HIFK’s defense unit, despite playing a handful fewer games than his two superiors. His five goals tied for first among the defensemen.

Oh yeah, and statistics aside, at just 17 years of age, Heiskanen was playing on the top pairing on his HIFK team. He earned high praise from his head coach Antti Tormanen, who called the young blueliner the team’s best defenseman on HIFK that season.

Heiskanen was a busy boy during the 2016-17 campaign. Not only was he excelling with HIFK, Heiskanen claims the rare honor of performing in all three tournaments that season: both World Junior Championships (U18 and U20) and the World Championships. And perform he did.

First, in the World Junior U18 tournament, Heiskanen notched a healthy 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) in seven games, not only the best among Finnish defensemen, but the best among all D-men in the tournament. He was just one point shy of the tournament leader, but his 10 helpers were by far the most of any competition. His plus-eight tied for the tourney lead as well.

Heiskanen followed up his successful WJC tournament with an identical stat line for the U18 World Championship. His two goals and 10 assists earned him the No. 6 spot on the Finnish roster and first among Finnish D-men. In the U20 iteration of the WJC and World Championships, Heiskanen again performed pretty decently, recording five helpers between the two tournaments.

With the 2016-17 season now under wraps, Heiskanen was ready for his name to be called at the 2017 NHL Draft. Lucky for the Stars, he was available at No. 3. At just 17 years of age, however, the young draft pick wasn’t quite ready for North American NHL ice. Dallas gave him another year in Finland, in what would turn out to be his best year yet.

Miro Heiskanen
Heiskanen is the highest pick by the Dallas Stars in the team’s 26 year history (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

International Superstar Turned Dallas Star

Now considered a prospect of the Dallas Stars organization, Heiskanen shined brightly during the 2017-18 campaign across the pond in Finland. It was perhaps his best season yet.

Once more, a now 18-year-old Heiskanen started the season with the big boy HIFK club, a roster with an average age of 27. Once more, amongst the youngest on the team. And once more, one of the best players on the team and the best defenseman on the team.

In total, the burgeoning blueliner tallied 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) in 30 games with HIFK. Statistically speaking, it was his best season yet in terms of goals scored and points produced during his Finnish career. But here’s the kicker: he only played 30 games all season. That’s exactly half as many as the leading scorer on the squad. Despite this, Heiskanen finished in the top 10 on the team and was first among D-men. His plus-17 tied for the team lead, an impressive stat for a defenseman.

So why did he only play 30 games all season? Well, Heiskanen had a lot of hockey to play during the 2017-18 campaign. See below.

Indeed, Heiskanen was a busy, busy man. At the World Championship, the Finnish star notched two helpers and was a plus-seven throughout the tournament. On the World Junior stage, Heiskanen donned the ‘A’ on his chest as a leader on the Finnish squad and notched two assists in six games. And then at the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, the blueliner netted one goal and helped the Finns to the quarterfinals before dropping a hard-fought 1-0 contest to the bronze-medal winning Team Canada. Not a bad international tournament tour for the budding Finnish blueliner.

Heiskanen then returned to HIFK and helped the team to the league’s semifinal, just one win shy of a Final berth, producing three goals and nine helpers in 14 games while maintaining a plus-six rating along the way. Oh, and as an 18-year-old, the youngster led the entire Liiga in ice time with 25:06. At the conclusion of his busy and fruitful year, Heiskanen was awarded the Pekka Rautakallio Award, given to the best defenseman in Liiga. In winning the award, he became the youngest player to ever earn the distinction. Not bad, Miro, not bad.

A Rising Star at the Ready

Now with the 2017-18 season quickly fading in the rearview mirror, it’s time to get excited for a fresh, clean slate of 82 games (hopefully more), and the arrival of the Dallas’ new shining star.

It’s impossible to predict how a prospect may pan out in the NHL. Most, perhaps the majority, never quite live up to the hype. But every once in a while, a team is dealt a solid hand and leaves the table with a nice generationally-talented jackpot. For Heiskanen and the Stars, the hope is the latter. But again, there’s no telling what might come of a gamble. After all, Heiskanen hasn’t even stepped foot on NHL ice yet. To say he’ll be the Stars’ best defenseman, or he’ll win the Calder Trophy this season as the NHL’s best rookie, or he’ll be the first Norris Trophy winner in franchise history is like going all-in before the flop is even on the table. But I have pocket aces and I’m feeling pretty lucky. I’m going all-in on Heiskanen.

They say to never count your money while you’re sitting at the table. So we must wait. First, there’s the turn. Then the river. It may be years before the gamble pays off, but one has to feel pretty good about the ace in hand. The Stars were dealt a solid one and chances are, perhaps somewhere soon down the road, Heiskanen may have a hand in returning the Stanley Cup to Dallas.