Prior to the 2019 NHL playoffs, nobody outside of Dallas had ever heard of defenseman Miro Heiskanen. By the time the Stanley Cup Final between the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning ends, everyone in the hockey world will have heard about this young man. In this year’s playoffs alone, Heiskanen, entering Game 3 of the Cup Finals last night, has 23 points on five goals and 18 assists. He is starting to develop as the true No. 1 defenseman the Stars hoped for and things are looking up. But there is a good story that has led him to this incredible opportunity to potentially take home the Conn Smythe Trophy, even if his team does not win the Cup, and why he could be in the Norris Trophy conversation as the NHL’s best defenseman for years to come.
Drafted third overall out of Finland in the 2017 NHL Draft, Heiskanen remained in Finland and played for HIFK Helsinki for another year, unlike his draft classmates Nico Hischier, Nolan Patrick and others, who went straight to the NHL. In that extra year in the SM-Liiga, Heiskanen put up 23 points in 30 games played on 11 goals and 12 assists. Those numbers are somewhat impressive for a young rookie and numbers that could be developed in the NHL. The only problem was that Heiskanen did not show thirdoverall caliber once he did arrive in the US.
In his rookie season with the Stars, Heiskanen proceeded to put up 33 points with 12 goals and 21 assists. He picked up a decent amount of goals that season, but it was his draft classmate, Elias Petterson, who took home the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie last year. In the playoffs, Heiskanen was slightly different, but did not seem like his regular-season self. In 13 games over two rounds, Heiskanen logged just four points on two goals and two assists, but set himself up for improvement from last year’s numbers. Over 68 games in a COVID-19-shortened regular season, Heiskanen put up 35 points on eight goals and 27 assists. If the whole season had been played, Heiskanen would have put up about 42-43 points, a steady improvement. In this timespan, Heiskanen started to prove himself more as a second line defenseman, and his teammates were ready to help him out, especially in the playoffs.
Entering the playoffs, the Dallas Stars had the fourth-best record in the Central Division and ended up with the No. 3 seed in the playoffs after winning just one game in the round robin. With that seeding, the Stars proceeded to take out the Calgary Flames in six games, eliminate the Colorado Avalanche in seven games and cook the Vegas Golden Knights out of the playoffs in five games. Their biggest contributors in addition to journeyman goalie Anton Khudobin, is the defense. As I mentioned earlier, Heiskanen leads all the defensemen with 26 points, but he has help from the likes of John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, Jamie Oleksiak and others. Back to Heiskanen, he has been impressive so far, including a two-goal performance in Game 2 against the Flames.
Heiskanen also contributes on the ice even when he does not score, being given the partial responsibility to shut down goal-scorers such as Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Nazem Kadri and now the Lightning offense of Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point amongst others. Heiskanen is helping on the ice with an average TOI of 25:43, also ranking in the top five in average TOI on even strength (21:05) and penalty kill (2:13). This postseason will not be the one-hit wonder of Miro Heiskanen, but the groundbreaking debut of a potential Norris winner.
So why does Heiskanen have a good chance of becoming an elite blueliner in the NHL? There are multiple reasons that might help explain his case. For starters, Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Leetch have some words to say about the young star. Asked about Heiskanen, Lidstrom commented that, “His speed reminds me of Paul Coffey … Both of those guys can beat opponents with pure speed … Heiskanen skates that effortlessly too.” Brian Leetch commented how, “He can control the entire pace of the game, … He reminds me of the way I played in that way.”
In this playoff, Heiskanen joins an elite club of defensemen to score 21 points in less than 16 games in a single postseason. The other seven Hall of Famers are Paul Coffey, Bobby Orr, Brian Leetch, Ray Bourque, Larry Robinson, Denis Potvin and Al MacInnis. Heiskanen has some great company, and while Lidstrom compares Heiskanen to Coffey, Finnish countryman Teppo Numminen compares his skating speed to Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer.
In describing Heiskanen’s skating, Numminen explains how, “He finds the space on the ice and it seems like he’s not in a rush anytime or in any situation because he is so quick.” In regard to what separates Heiskanen from other young defenders such as Calder winner Cale Makar, Numminen looks to his patience. Compared to other fast skaters, Numminen observes how, “It’s understanding when to use your speed and how you use it … It seems like he is not in a rush ever.”
Finally, even his own head coach, Rick Bowness, has praised Heiskanen’s talents. “He’s an elite player at that young age, but a comparison would be tough just because of the way he plays. He’s so reliable … The offensive upside is huge because of his skating ability, his poise, and puck skills.” Heiskanen has found himself in good company and should continue to earn praise from those who play or work with him.
But do not just take their words for it. As a hockey fan, even I am impressed by Heiskanen’s performance, and I really feel he has a chance to be an elite defender just like defending Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi is right now. His defensive abilities have helped him be in the top five in points throughout the playoffs behind superstars such as Nathan MacKinnon and Nikita Kucherov, but he could possibly surpass both of them if he continues to perform the way he does. In fact, if his team wins the cup and he contributes more than he already has, he can become the youngest Conn Smythe winner since Patrick Roy emerged for the Canadiens in 1986. As Stars legend Marty Turco says about Heiskanen, “Heiskanen is a generational player. He shouldn’t be left off too many Norris ballots for the next couple of years.” I am excited to see what the future holds for him.