Ville Heinola, the Winnipeg Jets most important defensive prospect, looks noticeably bigger than he did just a few months ago.
The 20-year-old wouldn’t say how much muscle he’s put on, only that he’s carrying some extra pounds he hopes will make him a stronger and better player this season.
But there’s a bigger weight that’s resting on his shoulders, and that’s figuring out where exactly he fits on a Jets blue line that went through a significant makeover during the summer.
"I just try to not think about that. This last summer, I just started to work as hard as I can, because if I start thinking about that it’s going to affect my game," Heinola told reporters after the Jets second day of minicamp. "So, I just try to do my job the best that I can… and just go from there."
The Finnish defenceman said multiple times over a nearly 10-minute chat he prefers not to talk about the Jets off-season moves, his tone suggesting he’s thought a lot about it. It’s hard to blame him for that, with Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff seemingly going all-in this year by trading for not one, but two top-four defencemen.
The Jets acquired Brenden Dillon from the Washington Capitals in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft and another second-round selection in 2023. A day later, Winnipeg swapped a third-round pick in 2022 with the Vancouver Canucks for Nate Schmidt. The two have combined for 18 seasons and 1,247 NHL games played, including 143 playoff games.
Winnipeg also re-signed Neal Pionk to a four-year deal and inked Logan Stanley to a two-year extension. Dylan DeMelo still has three years remaining on his four-year deal and Josh Morrissey, the team’s highest paid blue-liner at US$6.25 million per season, has five more years left on his deal. Nathan Beaulieu is also locked in for one more season.
By comparison, Heinola has played just 13 NHL games, all with the Jets, spread out between the last two seasons. Drafted by Winnipeg in the first round, 20th overall, in 2019, Heinola has had an interesting pro career, even if it’s been brief.
Last season was no exception. With a truncated 2020-21 campaign postponed until January, Heinola opened the year playing in the Finnish Elite league, with Lukko, and then for Finland in the annual World Junior Hockey Championship, which prevented him from attending Jets training camp. He would get into his first NHL game that year on Jan. 21, finishing a plus-2 in a 4-1 road win over the Ottawa Senators.
"I liked my game with the puck," Heinola said when asked to reflect on last season. "I didn’t have that confidence when I played those NHL games. So, like I didn’t really have the chance to show what I can really do. But I think in the minors I did well with the puck, had some good minutes and I think I did well on the power play."
But he would play just four more games with the Jets, and not again until late into the season, with those games played between late April and May. Heinola, who didn’t register a point in 2021, also never dressed for any of Winnipeg’s eight playoff games.
He spent much of last season either playing with the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League, where he ate up minutes, finishing with four goals and seven assists in 19 games, or on the newly formed Jets taxi squad. The latter assignment included getting paid his AHL salary, while practising with the NHL club.
"It’s not nice to go up and down all the time and be in a different place," Heinola said. "It’s been like that for a couple of years for me, but now I think it’s just going to be with a couple teams, at least, it’s not going to be like four teams this year. I think it’s going to be easier and just try to focus on wherever I am."
Heinola will start with the Jets as main training camp kicks off next Thursday, but where he ends up after roster cutdown remains a mystery. Likely, he’ll head back to the Moose, where he’ll rack up significant ice time and opportunity, tasked with playing in all situations, including a prominent spot on the power play.
That’s not the goal, of course. Heinola’s focus on cracking the Jets lineup this season hasn’t wavered. He’s a year older, more confident in his own skin and around his teammates and is ready to prove doubters wrong.
"I was working hard almost every day, a couple times per day (over the summer)," Heinola said. "Just try to go as hard as I can, of course, but I think the main thing is to show these guys that I can really battle out there. I want to show up this year."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.