Heinola demoted to gain experience
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BANFF – Rick Bowness says a tough conversation with young defenceman Ville Heinola was followed by some positive re-enforcement.
“What I told is him he’s a National Hockey League player,” Bowness said Tuesday following his club’s final practice in Banff, which didn’t include the organization’s top defensive prospect.
The words might have rung a bit hollow for Heinola. That’s because, at least right now, the 21-year-old is actually an American Hockey League player. Heinola was sent packing a day earlier, a long weekend of team bonding in the mountains cut short by yet another demotion to the Manitoba Moose.
Winnipeg’s 23-man opening-night roster includes eight blue-liners, and it’s a surprise to many — no doubt Heinola himself — that the 20th-overall pick from 2019 isn’t among them. To hear Bowness explain it, there’s not currently a role for Heinola in Winnipeg’s starting six, and having him healthy scratched wouldn’t be sound asset management.
“He’s too young to be sitting. He’s too good a player. He’s gotta play. He needs experience, and he’s not going to get the experience sitting in the press box. He needs to play,” said Bowness.
“He doesn’t need waivers so the best thing for him, as frustrating as it is for him I’m sure, is to go down and play. And then work on the things that we’ve given him to work on.”
Bowness said a trio of veterans – Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk and Nate Schmidt – are offensive-minded defenceman who are ahead of Heinola on the power play depth chart. Morrissey quarterbacks the top unit, while Pionk and Schmidt are on the second.
“So it’s tough for him to get those minutes. Which goes back to now you’re a third-pairing D, and we need a penalty killer back there,” said Bowness.
Brenden Dillon and Dylan DeMelo will do plenty of heavy lifting while shorthanded, which is something Heinola hasn’t done at the NHL-level. That, according to Bowness, is why Logan Stanley, Dylan Samberg and Kyle Capobianco are the others still on the roster.
“We’ve got eight National Hockey League defencemen, which is frustrating for the guys that aren’t playing, but it’s a good situation for us to be in. You can never have enough defencemen in this league,” said Bowness. “We’re fortunate to have those three battling for that sixth spot.”
Unless, of course, you’re someone like Heinola who is on the outside looking in.
“Ville’s a young guy, he’s going to play in the National Hockey League. He needs a little more time to straighten out defensively a little bit and decisions with the puck when he’s under pressure,” said Bowness.
“The best thing for him is very simple: He’s going to play in the league. He’s a great kid, and he’s going to be a really good player. Now is not the time. Go down, play those roles, play 24 minutes, play in every situation, run the minutes up, and it’s going to help him.”
Given that Morrissey, Pionk and Schmidt are all still under contract for multiple seasons, it’s fair to wonder just when opportunity might come knocking. Heinola has 25 NHL games under his belt, including a career-high (so far) of 12 last year.
“When you are a high draft pick and the guys your age are out playing, it’s hard,” Schmidt, who was Heinola’s partner in last Friday’s final pre-season game, said Tuesday.
“I was undrafted. I watched guys that were my age play and I didn’t play my first game until I was 22. I played 20 games or so, until I was 23 or 24 I never really got into the league (full time). You look around and it’s really important to see the end goal and to earn it. It’s really important to just remember that. There are guys that have had more games. You can’t compare yourself to other guys. Everyone has a path. Ville is following the same path that Josh (Morrissey) did. It’s difficult. He had a good camp, but (other) guys had some good camps as well. It wasn’t just one thing. He’ll be there someday.”
Despite the demotion of Heinola, there’s still one more roster move to make prior to Friday’s season-opener against the New York Rangers at Canada Life Centre.
The Jets placed forward Mason Appleton on injured reserve retroactive to when he suffered an upper-body injury last week. That allowed them to add forward Alex Jonsson-Fjallby, obtained on waivers Monday from Washington, to the active roster. He’s expected to join the team for practice on Thursday.
Appleton is expected to be activated prior to puck drop and play against New York. Whether the Jets cut one of the other 13 forwards on the roster or one of the eight defencemen remains to be seen.
“We’ll have that straightened out by Friday,” said Bowness.
The four days in Banff included two practices and plenty of off-ice bonding including fishing and golfing expeditions. Players believe the time together will ultimately serve them well during the rigours of an 82-game regular season.
“On all accounts, it was so much fun to be able to get into a situation where it was just us and you’re with them all weekend long. There are no distractions. You come in and you get to talk about things that didn’t go well and things you want to continue to do. I learned a ton over this last weekend,” said Schmidt.
“I always think this is important. This is something I’ve done in a previous organization and I think it’s huge to do before the year. It really puts everybody on the right foot moving forward.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.