Jets Smarter to Send Heinola to AHL Than to Europe

Winnipeggers will be seeing more of Ville Heinola at Bell MTS Place this season, but not in a Jets jersey.

The team ended weeks of “will they keep him, or won’t they” speculation Thursday, opting for the latter and reassigning the 18-year-old to the Manitoba Moose.

Sending Heinola down at All Is Controversial

Two weeks ago, yours truly went on record that the Jets should keep Heinola in the NHL all season. The Finnish defender played well beyond his years and made the most of the eight games he was given after cracking the opening-night roster against long odds. He wasn’t perfect, but his slick puck-moving skills, intelligence, and speed were on full display.

Ville Heinola Winnipeg Jets
Heinola played mostly well in his eight games with the Jets, much better than such a young player could be expected to. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Heinola tallied a goal and four assists and looked confident as he became the first player born in 2001 to record a big-league point and the youngest blue-liner in Jets history to score a goal, all while skating an average of 18:04.

Related: Heinola Not the First Jet to Hit Scoresheet in NHL Debut

Personally, I still feel the Jets’ blue line is better with Heinola on it than off it. I also still feel it’s tough to justify sending someone packing who’s made a positive impact while trotting out Anthony Bitetto and Dmitry Kulikov on the regular and claiming defenders off waivers like it’s going out of style.

However, I definitely understand the perspectives of those such as The Athletic’s Murat Ates, who feel both Heinola and the team will be better served in the long run if he spends 2019-20 in the minors.

The same group point to the fact Heinola’s been one of the Jets’ better D-men as saying just as much about how deficient their D-corp truly is as it says about his personal performance. That is certainly a valid argument.

AHL Will Benefit Heinola More Than Europe

Ates is right that the Jets should only keep Heinola around if they believe they’re a playoff contender, which — if you’ve watched their wildly inconsistent and foible-filled first 14 games — they don’t appear to be. Sending him down can definitely be read as a tacit admission the Jets feel their window to contend for the Stanley Cup has officially closed.

Having the 2019 20th-overall pick in the AHL does have its benefits: it will allow Heinola to play a starring role against lesser competition, more opportunities to learn the North American play-style, and to fill into his reedy 178-pound frame.

Winnipeg Jets Ville Heinola
The decision to send Heinola down may not be the right one. However, the AHL is a better destination than Europe. (James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports)

It will also let the organization keep closer tabs on him than they would be able to if he returned to the SM-Liiga’s Lukko Rauma.

The Manitoba Moose are off to an awful 1-7 start this season and have struggled to score. Heinola could make a substantial impact on the team, especially as a quarterback on their pathetic power play, which is a paltry 1-for-24 (3.6 percent ‘efficient’.)

Related: Manitoba Moose: October 2019 In Review

While Heinola still has the option of returning to Finland — and said Friday he’s still mulling over doing just that — he should take the Kristian Vesalainen case as a cautionary tale against it. Last season, Vesalainen exercised an out clause in his contract and played for Jokerit instead of sticking it out in the AHL.

Kristian Vesalainen Manitoba Moose
If Heinola gets the urge to go back to Europe, he should look at Kristian Vesalainen — who did just last season and is now struggling in the AHL despite seeming a lock to crack the Jets — as to why he shouldn’t. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Vesalainen’s no further along now than he was this time last year — his terrible preseason and current struggles even at the AHL level prove beyond a shadow of a doubt his European excursion was a waste of everyone’s time.

“Nothing’s Etched in Stone”

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff faced reporters and explained his decision on Thursday. The GM praised his most recent first-round pick’s poise and hockey sense, but also outlined he wanted him to have opportunities he might not get with the Jets.

“The bigger factor is, like anything, when you get a player that has talent and has abilities, and you want them to develop, you want them to develop into what they’re going to be, not what they can play at right now,” Cheveldayoff explained. “I’m sure there’s some nights he would be real high up in the lineup, and there’d be some nights where he would have not the opportunity to play those minutes and not the opportunity to play the power play, all of the things we see him being. It’s something we’re doing here today and something we’ll continue to discuss.”

Kevin Cheveldayoff on why the Jets sent Heinola down

Cheveldayoff left the door open for Heinola’s return to Finland or less likely, the NHL — if he plays more than nine NHL games, it burns a year off his entry-level contract — by saying “there’s nothing etched in stone…” It’s likely Heinola will participate in the 2020 World Juniors in the Czech Republic come December.

Winnipeg Jets Executive Vice President and General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff
Jets’ GM Kevin Cheveldayoff feels sending Heinola down will allow him to play a bigger role. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)

We’ll have to wait and see what impact Heinola has in the AHL and whether he’ll stay there or pull a Vesalainen. For now, if Jets fans want to see the promising prospect, they’ll need to snag some Moose tickets.