MONTREAL — You’ve probably never heard his name before, but the gold medal-winning coach of the U20 Finnish national team, Jussi Ahokas, swears he’s the real deal.
We’re talking about Ville Heinola, the all-around defenceman who starred alongside Chicago Blackhawks prospect Henri Jokiharju up until he was hurt five games into this past World Junior Championship. A 5-foot-11 power-play quarterback who just completed his season in Finland’s top league by compiling 14 points in 34 games for Rauman Lukko. A player the Montreal Canadiens might take a swing at with the 15th overall pick at this year’s draft, one they might want to add to a core that already includes Finland’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Artturi Lehkonen and Joel Armia.
"He has good hockey sense, he’s a good puck mover, he reads the game well, and those are his biggest assets as a player," said Ahokas in an interview with Sportsnet on Wednesday. "He’s a little bit more of a quiet guy but he has that good inner-confidence. He’s a good kid. A kid with an NHL future, for sure."
Heinola’s one of many in this year’s draft class to fit that description. And if the Canadiens were drafting based on need, he’d be near the top of their list, even if Sportsnet draft analyst Sam Cosentino has him ranked 24th among the prospects available in his most recent rankings.
The thing is, as Ahokas notes, Heinola is a project. A player whose limitations—his size, his skating, his shot—are all physical. Limitations that will take time to overcome before he becomes the bona fide NHLer Ahokas suggests he’ll be. And that’s a perfect example of why you don’t draft just to satisfy immediate needs, because needs change with time.
A year ago, choosing in the top-3, the Canadiens had an opportunity to address their immediate needs at centre and still end up with arguably the best player available in Kotkaniemi. This time around, they have to be looking for the next Al MacInnis, or Joe Sakic, or Alex Kovalev, or Alex Radulov, or Erik Karlsson—players who all went 15th overall and went on to have some of the most illustrious careers in NHL history.
There are some players believed to have that type of upside this time around. The one Cosentino just pegged to go 15th in his April rankings could be one of them. Raphael Lavoie is a 6-foot-4, 191-pound beast of a centre/right winger. A Montrealer plying his trade for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Halifax Mooseheads, a pure goal scorer who put up 32 in 62 games this season before adding 13 goals in his first 10 games of his team’s playoff run.
Lavoie also scored five goals—one more than consensus top pick in 2020 Alexis Lafreniere—and led Team Canada in the category at the 2018 U18 World Championship in Russia.
Speaking of goal-scoring leaders, Cole Caufield just posted 54 goals with the United States National Development Team and broke a record with six in a single game this season. The fact that he’s 5-foot-7 might be the only reason he’d be available when the Canadiens get set to pick, but he could be the next Alex DeBrincat. You know, Chicago’s 5-foot-7 winger who has 69 goals and 128 points in 164 games since graduating to the NHL two years after being drafted.
Back on the blue line, the Ontario Hockey League’s Thomas Harley projects, like Heinola, to be a top-four defenceman. The Mississauga Steelhead had 11 goals and 58 points in 68 games this season. He’s 6-foot-3, 188 pounds, and his skating is considered to be one of his best assets.
Ditto for Cam York, a teammate of Caufield’s who put up 10 goals and 51 points in 54 games for the USNTDP. A 6-foot power play specialist who’s on his way to the University of Michigan to bolster their defence in the fall.
And then there’s the pair of Swedish defencemen, Victor Soderstrom and Philip Broberg, who are both slotted by most draft prognosticators to go around 15. The former plays a high-octane offensive style, and the latter is described as a fluid, cerebral, two-way-type defenceman by eliteprospects.com.
The Canadiens are likely getting a future NHLer with anyone from this list. But you have to wonder if they’ll be compelled to go with another player having a stellar draft year, one who happens to be related to one of their top prospects.
Ryan Suzuki, in his second season with the OHL’s Barrie Colts, showed off many of the attributes that make his brother Nick such a vaunted player. He’s a player lauded for his hockey smarts, his silky hands, his playmaking, his elusiveness, and his top-end finishing ability. And, with 25 goals and 50 assists in 65 games this season, he’s moved into 10th among North American skaters on NHL Central Scouting’s list.
Suzuki would be a good option, even for a Canadiens team that’s bolstered its depth at centre with nine of its last 18 picks at the draft. They’ll have to decide if he’s the best one when they step up to the podium with the 15th overall pick on June 21 in Vancouver.