DALLAS — The Dallas Stars’ most crucial victory of the 2016-17 NHL season came off the ice that spring and is paying big dividends now and, certainly, for years to come.
The Stars made a major move at the NHL draft lottery in late April 2017, springing from eighth spot up to third. They selected Finnish blue-liner Miro Heiskanen less than two months later at the draft in Chicago.
General manager Jim Nill and his scouting staff ignored a number of blue-chip forward prospects, including Elias Pettersson (Vancouver Canucks), Casey Mittelstadt (Buffalo Sabres) and Lias Andersson (New York Rangers), instead opting to shore up the left side of their blue line by choosing Heiskanen.
He’s the franchise’s highest selection since Mike Modano went first overall in 1988 to what was then the Minnesota North Stars. Modano played 16 seasons and won a Stanley Cup in Dallas; he’s hockey royalty in these parts.
Heiskanen is in the initial stage of his career with the Stars, but the slick-skating, two-way defenceman is well on his way to becoming one of those rare players teams and fans revere both during and long after their playing days.
"He just keeps getting better. He’s a fine wine," Dallas head coach Jim Montgomery said Thursday, following the team’s morning skate at American Airlines Center. "It’s the innate ability to raise his game. It’s pretty amazing to watch, it really is. It’s like he has this inner clock that tells him to go."
Montgomery was a year away from being hired by the Stars when Heiskanen’s name was called at the 2017 draft, behind forwards Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils) and Winnipeg product Nolan Patrick (Philadelphia Flyers).
Montgomery and Heiskanen made their debuts with the organization in October 2018.
"I wasn’t here when they (drafted him). I’m just thankful they made the decision," he said.
After spending another year in Finland following the draft, Heiskanen flashed the wow factor in Year 1 with Dallas, scoring 12 goals and adding 21 assists while playing all 82 regular-season games. Only John Klingberg and Esa Lindell averaged more ice time than Heiskanen’s 23:07 by the end of the 2018-19 campaign.
He was named to the NHL’s all-star weekend but wasn’t included as a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year. St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington, Buffalo Sabres blue-liner Rasmus Dahlin and Pettersson made the list, with the Canucks centre claiming the award.
This season, Heiskanen is demonstrating all the signs of a franchise defenceman. He’s scored seven goals along with 13 assists, owns a plus-8 rating and leads the team with an average of 24:43 of ice time per game. He rarely makes the wrong read in his own end, shows remarkable vision in all three zones and possesses speed and agility, with or without the puck.
Jets fans witnessed his gear shift Tuesday night at Bell MTS Place when he accepted a pass on the fly, sliced through defencemen Neal Pionk and Luca Sbisa and ripped a shot over Connor Hellebuyck’s shoulder to cut Winnipeg’s lead to 3-1. The Jets went on to post a convincing 5-1 win.
And on Thursday in Dallas’ 3-2 triumph, he helped set up a pair of goals, including the overtime winner by Joe Pavelski with the Stars on the power play
The Calder was out of reach last season, but one day, perhaps, a Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best on the back end will come his way.
"Unbelievable. You can’t say enough great things, positive things, about the kid," Stars captain Jamie Benn said. "He’s already a true professional at 20 years old and we saw it last year and we continue to see it this year, he takes his game to another level.
"I don’t know what he was doing back in Finland before he came here, but he prepared well. Whoever taught him, maybe his parents, his coaches, they taught him how to be a professional, how to act the right way. He’s well beyond his years with the way he handles himself."
There’s confidence, but also a maturity and calmness portrayed by the product of Espoo, just 20 kilometres from Helsinki, where he played two years of pro before moving to Texas. Soft-spoken but thoughtful, Heiskanen maintains he has yet to feel rattled during on-ice battles.
"I’ve always been like this. I’m calm. I don’t get nervous playing hockey. I get more nervous with off-ice things," Heiskanen said. "The last time I was a little nervous was the draft. The rest of the time has been really good. I try not to think too much, I just react. I’ve always been a defence-first guy and now I’m jumping into the rush and doing more in the offensive zone."
Prior to Thursday’s game against the Jets, Heiskanen’s 18 points were tied for 17th in scoring among NHL defencemen. At even-strength, he’s tied for fifth.
Heiskanen’s long-term upside seems enormous, even to the young man himself. Earlier this season, he told reporters in Dallas he wanted to be the best defenceman in the world some day.
"I didn’t know what it would be like (in the NHL) because things are so different in Finland," he said.
"I don’t know exactly what the moment was when I knew I could be a good player here. But it’s been so good the last two years in Dallas, and I think I will get better."
Assistant 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).
Updated on Friday, December 6, 2019 at 7:15 AM CST: Updated