The average age on the Winnipeg Jets blue line will remain a little younger, as 20-year-old Ville Heinola will suit up for a second straight game Saturday against the visiting Ottawa Senators.
It's the first time the Jets youngest defencemen will play in back-to-back games this year, a fact that has had many fans scratching their heads wondering why it hasn't happened sooner. Heinola lacks experience at the NHL level, logging just 11 games since being drafted 20th overall in 2019. But a player who has shown a maturity and poise well beyond his years whenever thrown into action — even if his ice time has at times been limited — counters any perceived negative.
Ask Heinola himself and he's confident he can contribute on a regular basis. More importantly, he's eager to show he can be relied on when the stakes are at its highest. Thinking about where he might be comes playoffs only adds to the pressure to deliver, so he's trying not to give it much thought.
"I have to not think about anything on the ice or off the ice, just when you go on the ice, go 100 per cent and when you’re off the ice try to think about something else other than hockey, maybe," Heinola said after practice Friday "I just think when I get my chance, I want to show what I can bring to the team. I think that was a good start last game but, obviously, I can be better."
Heinola logged 13:50 of ice time playing alongside Dylan DeMelo in Wednesday's 4-0 win over the Calgary Flames, a game that snapped a seven-game losing streak that Heinola had no part in. He didn't look out of place and proved despite being on the smaller side, at 5-11, he can certainly play with the big boys.
"Honestly, I don’t really think about (my size) on the ice. I just try to play my game," he said. "I know my strengths, I know I have to try to be on the right side of the guys because I know I’m not, probably, the strongest guy there. I just have to play smart there, thinking more about how I have to play when I can outplay those guys."
Heinola has experience playing against grown men; he played multiple seasons with Lukko of the Finnish Elite League before joining the Manitoba Moose full time this year. He's honest in understanding the differences between playing in Finland and the NHL, noting the biggest difference is the speed here.
Adjusting to the smaller ice surface was also a challenge, but playing with the Moose for 19 games, and another three with the Jets, has helped ease the transition. Needless to say, nothing is holding him back at this point.
"I feel way better on the ice, to be honest, yeah. The biggest thing is I can trust more my body," he said. "I know I can handle those guys. I know I can handle the speed. It kind of gives me confidence when I know I can handle those things."
Teammates on the Jets have also noticed the improvement in the young defenceman.
"He’s probably just more assertive. There were a couple of times in the game (against Calgary) that you noticed that… obviously he’s not the biggest guy out there, but he is putting himself in good spots with his body position, where he was going up against a bigger player and he wasn’t allowing him to the front of the net and he wasn’t shying away by any means, because his gap is right, his angles are great and he kind of knows how to figure out when a guy is on his back and what-not," Jets forward Andrew Copp said.
"He definitely adds a dimension back there of puck moving. He’s going to be special. He added to our team and helped us get the win the other night. He’s going to be a great player, he moves the puck well and as a forward, that’s all you want, to try and get the puck to the forwards as fast as possible."
The ability to move the puck up ice is something that has hindered the Jets blue line this season. They may have just found what they're looking for and Heinola knows how important these next four games are to continuing to prove his worth.
"These are huge games for me. I can get the feeling back," he said. "I have not played many games this end of the season, so it’s good to get games, get my body going, get the legs feeling how (it’s like) playing again. I try to drive my confidence up again."
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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.