The Winnipeg Jets’ first-round 2019 NHL Entry Draft selection was just another step toward Winnipeg becoming “FinniPeg.”
With the 20th-overall pick they re-acquired less than a week ago when they traded the controversial Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers, the Jets selected Ville Heinola, the fifth Finnish-born player of their past four drafts.
Who the Heck is Ville Heinola?
For all those who said “wait, what? Who?” after Jets’ director of amateur scouting Marcel Comeau took the podium from general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and announced the pick, don’t feel bad. Prospects from outside North America rarely have the same name recognition as those from Canada and the U.S.
Here’s the quick and dirty on Heinola:
Heinola is a left-handed shooting defenseman who hails from Hokajoki, Finland. He skated for Lukko of Liiga for the back-half of 2018-19 — tallying two goals and 12 assists in 34 games — after being called up from Lukko’s under-20 team. Prior to that, he played for Porin Assat’s U-16, U-18, and U-20 squads.
Heinola also won some hardware in the past year. He snagged a gold medal with Team Finland at the 2019 World Junior Hockey Championships, tallying a goal and an assist in nine games.
Just 18-years-old, the fresh-faced Finn stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 178 pounds.
The Sportsnet draft panel praised Heinola as having a poised, calm, “rocking chair” style of game. He’s drawn comparisons to small mobile defensemen Torey Krug of the Boston Bruins and Miro Heiskanen of the Dallas Stars.
Dobber Prospects’ Jokke Nevalainen spoke highly of Heinola’s skillset back in December, pegging him as a young man with a number of strengths and the capability to excel in Finland’s top league despite his tender age.
“Heinola is a talented offensive defenseman,” Nevalainen wrote. “Despite not having blazing top speed, Heinola is a great skater. His edge work is amazing. He’s a very smart player with good vision and passing skills. He also has pretty impressive one-on-one skills. Because of these talents, he can move the puck and also skate it up the ice himself. His shot isn’t the most powerful you’ll see out there but it’s good, and he’s very good at finding open lanes to get pucks to the net.”
Nevalainen also praised Heinola’s playmaking ability and intelligence in a prospect deep dive, noting, “He thinks the game at a high level and seems to be one step ahead of the opposition.”
Despite being left-handed, Heinola played the right side with Lukko (even more impressive given his age), saw time on special teams, and was third in average time on ice among defensemen.
“He doesn’t have a booming slap shot, but his wrist shot and release is really good,” habseyesontheprize.com’s Jared Book noted of his offensive abilities in a detailed prospect profile. “He can use it to put pucks on net and it is capable of beating goaltenders as well. On the power play, he is a good passer using fakes and deception to create openings for himself.”
A Reach, a Steal, or Right on the Money?
Some were caught off-guard that the Jets took Heinola given Tobias Bjornfot, Bobby Brink, Arthur Kaliyev, Connor McMichael, Raphael Lavoie, Philip Tomasino, and Ryan Suzuki (The Athletic’s Murat Ates noted “they have a murderer’s row of small skilled forwards available to them”) were available.
Brian Burke — as Heinola pulled on a Jets’ sweater for the first time — called the Jets’ selection a “bit of a gamble… given what’s left on the sheet.”
Though a bit surprising, the pick is not a massive reach. Heinola rapidly ascended the draft rankings with a strong season; he was the fourth-ranked European skater by NHL Central Scouting and was ranked 28th by The Athletic, 21st by Future Considerations, 22nd by Elite Prospects, and 23rd by TSN’s scouting guru Bob McKenzie. THW’s own mock draft had him gone even higher, at 13th overall.
However, Burke also said, “I will never question Kevin Cheveldayoff in the amateur draft because they’ve done such a good job so it’s probably a good pick.”
Indeed, Cheveldayoff has been a wizard at the draft table since the Jets relocated from Atlanta — he’s transformed a perennial loser with no depth into a Stanley Cup competitor through his draft-and-develop strategy.
Related: Jets NHL Draft Days Ranked
Even if Heinola was a real off-the-board selection, fans can trust their GM — he also went off the board with his first pick ever back in 2011 when he took Mark Scheifele over the consensus Sean Couturier. That worked out pretty well.
He’s Not NHL Ready, but Jets Are High on Heinola
Heinola won’t be gracing the ice for the Jets or the Manitoba Moose next season; he’s committed to another campaign with Luuko. However, Cheveldayoff was clearly chuffed to have him a Jet.
“He’s a player with tremendous hockey sense,” Cheveldayoff told Elliotte Friedman. “We think he’s going to fit in exceptionally well (with the Jets’ forwards).”
As for Heinola himself, he came across intelligent, if not shy, as he addressed the media, saying he likes to play the puck, make smart passes, and he tried to “learn some things” by watching Miro Heiskanen over the past year.
If Heinola does begin to develop anything the 19-year-old defenseman who put up 33 points in his rookie season and looks a big part of the Stars’ core going forward, or develops even further into a rock-solid possession man like Torey Krug, the Jets have good reason to be excited.
It’ll be a few years before anyone knows whether Heinola was the right choice at 20th overall, but from early indications, he could be another great Finnish find.