Combine the rise of young Finnish players with the Winnipeg Jets’ established ability to mine amateur talent and you could have a perfect match with defenceman Ville Heinola at the 20th overall pick.
The Jets may soon have to be re-named the Lions — as in, the team name of Finland’s national club — given the amount of young kids from that country now in GM Kevin Cheveldayoff’s pipeline. Winnipeg’s two most recent first picks in Round 1 were Finns, with sniper Patrik Laine selected second overall in 2016 and big winger Kristian Vesalainen nabbed 24th overall two years ago in 2017. (No first-round pick for Winnipeg last June.) The Jets also took a seventh-round flyer on Sami Niku in 2015 and he was the American Hockey League defenceman of the year in 2017-18.
Now comes Heinola, whose 14 points in 34 Liiga games — Finland’s top circuit — may not melt your brain, but represent a very solid showing for an undersized kid who didn’t turn 18 until March. For reference, emerging Dallas Stars stud D-man Miro Heiskanen managed just 10 points in 37 contests during his draft-eligible season while competing against the best professionals in Finland. Some of Heinola’s points, as Sportsnet draft guru Sam Cosentino noted, came while the left-shooting rearguard was flipped around, playing the right side of the ice.
His less-than-imposing frame might lead you to assume Heinola depends on hot wheels to make an impact, but that’s not really the case. He’s got a big hockey brain that shines playing the thinking player’s position. Heinola’s calm demeanour — the boys used the old “looks like he’s playing in a rocking chair” line on the Sportsnet broadcast — and spectacular vision allow him to usually make the right play at the right time.
The young man’s good instincts may have even been in play on draft night, as the Jets sauntered up to the podium.
“Our meeting at the [NHL Draft Combine] went well,” he said of the interview he had with the Winnipeg brass in Buffalo a few weeks ago.
Heinola was part of the Finnish team that won gold at the 2019 World Junior Championship in Vancouver six months ago and the amount of talent pouring into the NHL from that country right now is staggering. With Heinola’s WJC teammate Kaapo Kakko going No. 2 overall to the New York Rangers, a Finn has now been selected among the top three picks in each of the past four drafts and five times in the past seven years dating back to Aleksander Barkov being taken by the Florida Panthers in 2013. Prior to that year, a Finn had gone in the top three picks on just three occasions in the entire history of the draft.
Of course, Winnipeg — which dealt away its first-rounder at each of the past two trade deadlines, but got this one back from the Rangers in the Jacob Trouba swap — is a here-and-now team gunning for a title. Heinola probably won’t be able to help with that in the next couple years, but it’s easy to see him being a big part of the plan — along with some of his talented countrymen — in the years to come.