The Tampa Bay Lightning like drafting undersized players with high hockey IQ. They just don’t like to do it when that player is a defenseman. Considered by some to be the second best defender in the draft, Finnish blueliner Ville Heinola may be the one to change that history.
As Geo mentioned in his preview for Matthew Robertson, during the Al Murray era, the Lightning have not been big on drafting defensemen who are on the short side of six feet. At the pre-draft combine, Heinola was measured at a haircut under the six foot mark (official measurement 5’ 11.75”). That, however, shouldn’t automatically knock the Finn off of their draft board.
Heinola started the season as a 17-year-old on Lukko’s Junior A team. From there he rose steadily throughout the year, not only for Lukko, but also in international play. He first played for the Finnish Under 18 World Junior team, recording four points in five games as they were eliminated in the quarter finals by the United States.
Following that tournament he was promoted to the senior Lukko team and began playing against men twice his age. He was also named to the Under 20 World Junior team and was one of their top defenseman on the squad that beat the US to win the tournament. The gold medal he won was a little bittersweet as he suffered a knee injury in the quarterfinal match against Canada. The injury kept him off the ice for six weeks
Returning to the ice in February for Lukko he showed no signs of being slowed by the injury. He closed the season averaging over 20 minutes a game and running point on the power play unit. So why would he be available to the Lightning at the bottom part of the first round? His size for one thing, but he also isn’t the strongest of skaters.
Heinola does overcome that second trait by being an excellent puckhandler and knowing when he can skate the puck out of the zone and when he has to dump it out. Hockey instincts may be more important than skating ability, something that the Lightning would no doubt work on him with. If you remember, skating wasn’t exactly Brayden Point’s strength when he was drafted, but that turned out alright for the Lightning in the end.
That isn’t too say he is a bad skater. It’s not like he’s the Finnish Joe Reekie out there on the ice. As the below clip will show, he is a very smooth skater who can make subtle little moves to get open.
It will be interesting to see how his game translates to the North American version of hockey, especially in his own zone. With Tampa Bay’s focus on stick work and blocking passing lanes as opposed to physically imposing their will on their opponents in the defensive zone, Heinola may actually be a pretty good fit for them. He wouldn’t be forced to play a game he isn’t familiar with. Having held his own against full-grown men last season bodes well for the fact that he may be able to transition smoothly.
Another positive trait for him is that he does have the ability to play on his off-hand side. He is a left-handed shot, but has played the right side for Lukko. The Lightning prize that kind of versatility in a player, especially a defenseman.
He doesn’t have a booming slapshot from the point, but he does have an accurate wrist shot and knows how to get open in order to get it on net. As long as Victor Hedman is around the Lightning don’t need another point man on the number one unit so Heinola could slot in nicely on the second unit.
Is there a player he compares to currently in the system? Not really. He seems like he would be the player the Lightning hoped Ben Thomas would turn into (without the constant falling down). In all likelihood he would spend another year in Finland and then a year or two with the Crunch before getting the call up to the Lightning. That would give him plenty of time to work on his skating explosiveness and mature physically a bit more.
With Tampa Bay drafting so late in the round, the chances of him still being available are slim. Most of the scouting services have him ranked in the mid-teens to early twenties (our own Lauren Kelly has him #24th in her pre-draft rankings). However, if the scouting departments for the other organizations are hung up on his size Ville Heinola could be a steal at the 27th spot.
Ville Heinola Stats
|2015-2016||KJK U16||Jr. C Mestis Q||6||7||11||18||6|
|KJK U16||Jr. C Suomi-sarja||2||2||1||3||0|
|Finland Selects U15||WSI U15||5||1||2||3||0|
|Ässät U16||Jr. C SM-sarja||17||7||10||17||12|
|2016-2017||Ässät U16||Jr. C SM-sarja Q||5||0||6||6||4|
|Ässät U18||Jr. B SM-sarja||35||4||17||21||10|
|Finland U16 (all)||International-Jr||11||1||3||4||0|
|2017-2018||Ässät U18||Jr. B Mestis Q||2||0||4||4||0|
|Ässät U18||Jr. B SM-sarja||17||6||16||22||16|
|Ässät U20||Jr. A SM-liiga||33||3||14||17||12|
|Finland U17 (all)||International-Jr||12||0||4||4||4|
|Finland U18 (all)||International-Jr||10||0||3||3||6|
|2018-2019||Lukko U20||Jr. A SM-liiga||9||1||8||9||2|
|Finland U18 (all)||International-Jr||13||1||8||9||10|
|Finland U18||Hlinka Gretzky Cup||4||0||2||2||0|
|Finland U20 (all)||International-Jr||9||1||1||2||4|
Heinola has been referred to by scouts as a poor man’s Miro Heiskanen, as both players share extremely high hockey IQ, are talented offensively, and are fluid skaters with great edgework. Heinola could improve on his first-step speed, but he showcased his vision and ability to create offense for his teammates in professional hockey this season. He’ll need to get stronger as he looks towards the NHL, but he already looks extremely confident playing against men.
Heinola trended up quickly from a fine prospect to an almost lock to be drafted high this season. He was called up to his club team where he played a significant role, as well as on the Finnish U20 team. His hockey sense drives his value. Heinola is a calm, poised puck-moving defenseman who generates clean exits and entries with his vision, and makes plays on the man advantage. He’s fine defensively due to his positional play, despite not being the biggest defender. However, he has limitations that may hinder him as he progresses. His size is obvious but his skating is also a minor concern. His stride breaks down when he gets going in a straight line, which is worrisome in a 5-foot-11 defender. I like his edges a lot, with Heinola showing a powerful burst on his first few steps to balance out the stride issue somewhat.
Heinola’s growth this year has been incredible. It really has. Every time I watched him play I came away more impressed than the last and that has made him one of the consistent risers on my list this season. And though he’s a more complete player than Honka, I don’t see the same offensive level at his ceiling. Heinola is who is he because he’s efficient (by that I mean that he makes plays quickly, he doesn’t hesitate, but he does both of those things while still having surveyed the ice ahead of the decision), he quickly earns the trust of his coaches, he’s precise in his execution offensively and he’s compact and careful defensively. But he doesn’t take over games and he’s not going to be a dynamic offensive threat at the next level (though he showed signs that there may be more flair below the surface in the Liiga playoffs). He’s really, really good. I just don’t think he’s going to be an outright star. He’s probably going to be picked in the mid-to-late first round, that’s fine.