The Winnipeg Jets need to write their top defensive prospect into their lineup in permanent marker.
Heinola Has Proven He’s NHL-Ready
Despite playing in only four NHL games this season — far fewer than he should have — Heinola has proven he’s ready for primetime. The 20- year-old Finn played in his second-straight contest for the first time all season Saturday, suiting up against the Senators and logging a season-high 17:47, firing three shots on goal, and blocking four.
He played most of the night with Jordie Benn, who was in due to a minor injury to Neal Pionk. In the latter half of the third with the Jets trailing, he played with Josh Morrissey. His Saturday performance came after he skated 13:50 of alongside Dylan DeMelo in Wednesday’s 4-0 victory over the Calgary Flames, which snapped a disastrous, franchise-long seven-game losing streak.
Heinola is a cerebral and confident defender well beyond his years. Despite only suiting up for a dozen NHL games in his young career, he has experience against older opponents — he played two seasons with Lukko Rauma of the SM-liiga, most recently last fall while waiting for the NHL season to begin. In 19 games there, he racked up 14 points while playing in a top-four role.
While he won’t bash guys around at his size, he doesn’t need to. His anticipation, gap, reads, and positioning have all been spot-on. Intelligence is better than size in the modern NHL, where speed and skill is king.
“Honestly I don’t really think about that on the ice,” Heinola said recently when asked how he deals with being a smaller defenseman playing against larger opponents. “I just try to play my game, I know my strengths. I know I have to try to be on the right side of the guys because I’m not probably the strongest guy there though. I just have to play smart there and try think about how I have to play when I can outplay those guys.”
Heinola Provides More Upside Than Benn
Heinola played in zero of the Jets’ seven-straight losses, while Benn played in four of them.
The 33-year-old deadline day addition was wholly underwhelming, posting poor possession numbers, allowing twice as many high-danger chances as he generated (eight to four) and putting just one shot on net.
In Heinola’s four games, his expected goals for to expected goals against ratio has been better and his ratio of high-danger chances for to against has been better as well.
Even if Heinola’s stats weren’t better, Benn is a third-pairing defenseman who has struggled over the past few seasons, while Heinola is a potential game-breaker and a huge part of the Jets’ future on the back end. He shouldn’t be passed over for someone who’s not in the long-term plans and was brought in as nothing more than an insurance policy against injury.
At this point, the battle for playoff playing time should really be between Heinola and Logan Stanley, who has been pretty effective in 34 games. It shouldn’t really have to be one or the other, as Derek Forbort has struggled in the back half of the season after a strong start, but everyone knows head coach Paul Maurice loves his veterans.
Confident Heinola Has the Skills Jets Desperately Need
The Jets have had huge problems all season with clean breakouts and getting the puck out of their own zone. It’s led to far too many goals against and has also done a disservice to their offence.
Heinola is a slick puck mover and has the vision and confidence to get pucks to forwards quickly. The Jets’ transition game is a huge part of their offence, and Heinola’s play style complements it best.
Heinola’s confidence has grown as he’s become accustomed to the smaller North American ice surface. He played 19 games for the Manitoba Moose this season, where he posted four goals, seven assists, and a plus-four rating. He noted that playing in two Canadian-based World Juniors (2019 and 2021) was a “big help” as well but that he still has a lot to learn.
“I feel way better on the ice, to be honest, yeah,” Heinola said when asked about improvements to his game. “The biggest thing is I feel like I can trust more my body. I know I can handle those guys. I know I can handle the speed. So it kind of gives me confidence when I know I can handle those things.”
Entry-Level Slide Be Darned: Heinola Gives Jets Best Chance to Win
If Heinola plays more than six games between the regular season and playoffs, his entry-level contract won’t slide. This means there will be only two years left on it come next season instead of three.
Heinola’s ELC already slid last season, since he played just eight regular season games — performing admirably for a then-18-year-old — before a short stint with the Moose, a trip to the World Juniors, and a longer stint with Lukko.
Losing a year off his contract is a sacrifice the Jets should make if they still consider themselves a top team. One could make a compelling argument that the eight-loss-in-nine-game stretch they’re currently on has laid bare systemic problems that will prevent them from making a deep run. But that doesn’t chance the fact that — rightly or wrongly — the True North Organization believes the team, as currently constructed, can contend for the Stanley Cup.
If that’s their belief, they should be icing the lineup that gives them the best chance to win. Heinola gives them that best chance. If they keep him in the press box come the post-season, they’ll just be betraying that they don’t truly believe in themselves.
Declan Schroeder is a 26-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.