Heinola aims to crack Jets roster as Bowness focuses on solidifying defence

Sean Reynolds and Ken Wiebe discuss Rick Bowness' time as the Jets head coach early on, the team heading into the season with a chip on their shoulder, and their goal of pairing young players with veterans.

WINNIPEG — As Rick Bowness was rattling off ways he’d like to see his defence corps improve this season — and the qualities he would be looking for from the group — you couldn’t help but get the sense he was talking about elements you can find in Ville Heinola’s game.

Whether it was the aggressive nature or willingness to get involved in the rush and provide a second wave of offence that Bowness is seeking, the Winnipeg Jets 2019 first-rounder is the type of player who could certainly contribute in those areas, among others.

So is it safe to pencil Heinola into the opening-day roster on Oct. 14 against the New York Rangers?

Not so fast.

In the land of opportunity that should be provided during the first training camp for Bowness and his coaching staff, Heinola is one of the players under the spotlight — and rightfully so.

Some of his best qualities line up with things the Jets simply didn’t do a good enough job of last season.

Crisper zone exits will be a necessity for this group and Heinola’s vision and passing ability could be featured prominently, provided he can earn the trust of Bowness and company during these next three weeks.

“Listen, this kid can move the puck, he’s got great wheels with the puck, heads up, I get all that,” said Bowness. “But we’ve got to learn, can we win with this guy? That’s what it comes down to, can we win with this. They’ll all be given the opportunity, the exhibition games. What he does jumps out at you, the skating, puck moving skills, that all jumps out at you. You win by your compete, your team systems, buying in and all that.

“Those are things that come out during the exhibition games. And the guys that don’t quite grasp it show you they’re not quite ready. That goes to everybody in camp, not just one or two guys. We like what we see, he’s doing what we were told he can do.”

After bursting onto the scene and making the Jets rather unexpectedly as an 18-year-old just a few months removed from being chosen 20th overall, Heinola’s development stalled somewhat.

That’s not to say he hasn’t improved because it’s clear that he has in a number of areas, it’s that his rapid progression hit a series of speed bumps — which is fairly normal for most young blue-liners.

When you get a taste of the NHL so early but are still searching for regular and sustained work at that level three years later, it can be tough to remain patient.

One can become a victim of their own early success, if you will.

So that’s the challenge, to do everything in your power to not focus on the race against time and lock in on doing the things that will allow you to grasp that open position.

“Patience,” said Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon. “Patience is so tough to have, especially when it feels like it's already your 10th year in the league when really, it's only your second or third. And there's been a lot of different seasons for him early on. You know, you've got the covid year and even last year, there's a bunch of trades that happen and it's easy for a young player to get frustrated."

“Whether that's getting your mind in the wrong place and starting doing stuff that's not going to help you get to the next level, I think that's kudos to Ville: he's really stuck with it. He was up a bunch last year. Maybe he didn't get into as many games as he'd want to, but you can tell he's put the work in.”

Heinola realizes that most people see him as an offensive defenceman, as the offensive side of the puck is where the majority of his strengths reside.

Through an effort to become a better all-around player, Heinola worked his way onto the Manitoba Moose penalty kill and has openly embraced the opportunity to show he can chip in while shorthanded in the NHL.

He doesn’t want to be looked at as a one-trick pony and while he’s never going to be known for throwing an abundance of bone-jarring hits, Heinola has worked on the physical element of his game along with his angles and stick positioning.

The biggest test ahead will come with his risk-reward profile and how he manages that area of the game.

The aggressive nature of Bowness’ system that’s being installed should play right into Heinola’s strengths, though he must find the balance of knowing when he can pinch down on a winger and when he has the green light to join — or even lead — the rush.

“I feel like it’s all about trusting myself,” said Heinola, who got a solid scouting report on Bowness from fellow Finns and Dallas Stars defencemen Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell over the course of the summer. “It’s always nice to get a new start. For me, I feel like the biggest thing is you can learn a lot. They’re going to teach you some different things from what some of the other coaches did.

“You’ve still got to earn the spot and do all the work, so that I earn the spot. That is nothing different from other coaches. I feel like if you can earn the trust, (Bowness) can probably give me some ice time.”

Bowness made a decisive decision at the beginning of training camp to pair several young D-men with a veteran to help them feel at home and give them the best chance to shine.

For Heinola, that means playing alongside Brenden Dillon, the most physical member of the defence corps and the most experienced at 733 NHL games and counting.

Dylan Samberg has been playing alongside Nate Schmidt, Declan Chisholm is paired with Dylan DeMelo, and Johnny Kovacevic is taking a turn with Josh Morrissey.

Add in Logan Stanley, Kyle Capobianco, Ashton Sautner and Leon Gawanke and it’s clear some difficult roster decisions are on the horizon.

“Trial and error, it’s the only way to do it,” said Bowness, when asked what he looks for in finding a successful pairing. “If you want to give a guy a fair chance, you’ve got to get him with the right people. So if the skills are there, the size is there, everything is there. You’ve got see what works and what doesn’t, who struggles, who looks good together."

“There are some good young D. I love their mobility, and they can get physical because they have the size. Those young D are all going to be given a great opportunity to show if they can help us now. Or show maybe down the road, maybe by Christmas. Players eventually cut themselves. There are always tough decisions at the end of camp for every team, not just the Winnipeg Jets. When we get there, that’s where we have our group discussion and you go from there.”

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