Teen defenceman Heinola finds a home on blue line

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Ville Heinola got a taste of home the other night — courtesy of his new pal, Patrik Laine — but has no desire to return to Finland for more of the same any time soon.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/10/2019 (1165 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Ville Heinola got a taste of home the other night — courtesy of his new pal, Patrik Laine — but has no desire to return to Finland for more of the same any time soon.

The 18-year-old defenceman, taken by Winnipeg in the first round (20th overall) of the 2019 NHL entry draft, has made the Jets’ 23-man roster to begin the 2019-20 season.

He could suit up Thursday night in the season opener in Manhattan against the New York Rangers.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Jets rookie defenceman Ville Heinola has cracked the Jets’ season-opening roster.

“I’m really surprised. But I’m feeling good, so excited. I hope I can play well, keep playing,” Heinola said following practice on Tuesday. “I didn’t expect anything here, I just want to see what could happen. Now I just want to stay here. It’s like everything I have been dreaming about and it is coming true.”

Heinola hadn’t met Laine until they shared a Finnish feast on Sunday night, just hours after the goal scorer arrived in Winnipeg with a two-year, US$13.5-million contract.

“It was like one month since I last ate Finnish food, and Patrik’s daddy (Harri) made it for us. It was so good,” Heinola said. “(Patrik) was so easy to talk to, he’s a nice guy. When I was little, I was a little fanboy. But now we are teammates and we are friends. He’s so good. You can’t even see the puck when he shoots.”

While Jets training camp featured no shortage of off-ice storylines — such as the protracted contract talks with Laine and Kyle Connor, and defenceman Dustin Byfuglien’s personal leave of absence — Heinola’s ascension from roster long shot to a guy quarterbacking the second power-play unit in practice has been stunning, to say the least.

Indeed, things have fallen into place for the left-shot defenceman. Winnipeg lost defencemen Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot to free agency, creating space for a potential newcomer. Byfuglien surprised everyone by stepping back to ponder his future, Nathan Beaulieu suffered an upper-body injury that could sideline him for at least a month and Sami Niku has a groin injury.

Heinola, a 6-0, 180-pound blue-liner, was terrific in five pre-season games — registering two assists, showing wisdom and poise in the defensive end, moving the puck effectively and flashing slick offensive traits.

“I’ve liked what you’d like when you see an 18-year-old defenceman built like him get into exhibition games, and even more than that was that our practices were heavy, lots of one-on-one with physicality to it, and you could see it happening during practice — he figures it out, he figures out that he needs to play Blake Wheeler differently than he plays Nik Ehlers,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said. “He’s a smart guy, his pickup rates are real fast, his systems rates are fast. What’s unusual about Ville, is for a very skilled, offensive player, he doesn’t come to the rink and say, ‘This is what I do and don’t need to do a lot more.’ He’s interested in being good in all parts of the game.”

● ● ●

Eric Comrie is heading south.

The 24-year-old goalie was claimed off waivers by the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday after being assigned to the Manitoba Moose the day before. Coming off an entry-level contract, it’s the first time he was demoted without protection from waivers.

Comrie was the consummate professional since he was drafted in the second round in 2013. A blue-chip prospect, he was relied upon heavily during four seasons in the AHL and earned five NHL starts (2-3-0) — to mixed reviews.

Maurice spoke glowingly about Comrie, noting his belief the Edmonton product possesses the skill set to play in the NHL.

“You don’t like to lose people over waivers. But he was among a handful of guys I’ve (coached) that you’re truly happy for an opportunity because you know he has to be in the National Hockey League. We love the guy… just a world-class kid. He’s done everything absolutely right, and just timed an organization that has some veteran guys ahead of him,” he said. “He’s worked hard at his game and we wish him nothing but the best.”

The writing was on the wall for Comrie in Winnipeg. The Jets have No. 1 goalie Connor Hellebuyck under contract through the 2023-24 season, while backup Laurent Brossoit was signed to another one-year deal. The Jets also have impressive youngster Mikhail Berdin in the system and he’ll assume the starting duties with the Moose.

Comrie will be missed, captain Blake Wheeler said.

“Just a great, great person, always a guy that you cheer for immensely. You see him around the room, whether it’s on practice days or whatever, he’s just always in a great mood. He works extremely hard at his craft. Just a tough situation here, we’ve had some good goaltenders here recently and he just hasn’t gotten the opportunity here that maybe he deserved. If he gets an opportunity elsewhere, there’s certainly a hell of a roomful of guys cheering for him.”

Arizona’s crease looks set, with Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper as a tandem coming out of training camp. But the Coyotes are carrying 22 players, one fewer than the league maximum, and could employ three netminders early on.

As per NHL waiver rules, Comrie must remain on the Coyotes roster for 30 days.

● ● ●

Josh Morrissey is gaining a permanent letter, although not at the expense of another from the Jets’ leadership group.

The Jets’ best all-around defenceman accepted an offer to become an alternate captain. Wheeler begins his fourth campaign as captain, while Mark Scheifele also serves as an alternate.

Byfuglien stays an alternate if he returns to the squad, and the trio would rotate (two in, one out) as alternates during the year.

Morrissey had a career-high 31 points (six goals, 25 assists) in 59 regular-season games in 2018-19, and is entering his fourth NHL season. Winnipeg’s first-round pick (13th overall) in 2013 recently signed an eight-year, US$50-million contract extension.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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