While his tournament was cut short due to injury, the 2019 World Junior Championships can be seen as a launching pad for Ville Heinola’s stock — one of the biggest risers in this year’s draft class. Most recently, Heinola’s torrid scoring pace to close out the Liiga season saw him eclipse Miro Heiskanen’s draft-year production, causing many to draw comparisons between the two Finnish rearguards.
But is the hype warranted and is Heiskanen actually a fair comparison? All that and more answered in this deep dive.
- Age/Birthdate: 18 / March 2, 2001
- Birthplace: Honkajoki, Finland
- Frame: 5-feet-11 inches / 181 pounds
- Position: Defence
- Handedness: Left
- Draft Year Team: Lukko (Liiga)
- Accolades: Gold Medal Team Finland, 2019 U20 World Junior Championships
2018-19 Stat Rundown
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Scoring 14 points in 34 games as a defenceman in one of the toughest professional leagues in the world is impressive, but make no mistake — Ville Heinola is not an uber-talented offensive defenceman in the traditional sense. Instead, his game is predicated on using his intelligence, composure and smooth skating to make efficient, high-percentage plays with the puck on his stick in all three zones.
Heinola will never wow you with any one particular attribute of his game, but rather demonstrates above average acumen in most departments to put together an all-around package suited for the modern NHL game.
Beginning with his skating, Heinola might lack the dynamic high-end speed and acceleration that most undersized defencemen possess, but he demonstrates fluid movement in his strides and terrific pivots that allow him to twist and turn without a moment’s notice.
All told, you’re looking at a player that moves well but lacks the explosiveness to have a decisive separation gear against forecheckers as a puck rusher.
Early on in the season, this presented issues for Heinola on breakouts. Normally a calm and poised decision-maker, he’d often get overwhelmed by heavy forechecking pressure and would panic to try and quickly get rid of the puck when he had little time and space on retrievals — leading to numerous failed exits. You can see a few examples of that below.
One tendency I’ve noticed with Heinola is that he often forces chip plays up the boards even when an easy reversal to his partner is available. In the first example below it leads to a turnover and in the second one it leads to a delay of game penalty.
Fortunately, Heinola has become more acclimated to retrievals under pressure and has started cutting down on his turnovers through the course of the season — an improvement that bodes well for his transition game moving forward.
At the top of his game, Heinola is a cerebral and smart puck mover who can patiently bait forecheckers wide and then slip short passes underneath in the middle pocket.
Heinola is most efficient in transition on teams like Lukko when he has skilled centres who can drop deep and provide support to feed off of as he’s not the type of dynamic puck rusher to consistently lead controlled exits with his feet alone. In having said that, he has the confidence, smooth skating and puck skills to take advantage should extra time and space be afforded on retrievals.
In the offensive zone, Heinola isn’t an incredible offensive creator on his own, but rather excels when functioning as a secondary or support threat. He’s very smart in reading off of the puck carrier, anticipating the seams in which he can act as a release option and moving off the puck accordingly — often engaging in simple give-and-goes from the point that buy extra space.
The shifty blueliner is most dangerous when his teammates are working the puck down low and attracting most of the opposition’s attention. From here, Heinola can jump down from the point and attack soft spots in coverage such as in the goal below.
Play down low would also make him dangerous following a low-to-high pass. Heinola is most creative and threatening when he has time and space to attack towards the net. This is where he shows deception due to his ability to present the threat of both a shot and pass, excellent footwork in mixing in heel to heel strides to create space wide and the poise to dangle around overzealous wingers charging the point.
This skillset also gives him the confidence to activate from the point down the half-wall with the puck while searching for passes to the slot.
Primarily a playmaker, Heinola’s shot is more dangerous as a tool that opens passing lanes than it is as a direct option on net. A big part of this derives from Heinola’s shooting mechanics as he barely pulls the puck back before his wristers. This, in turn, results in a shot that doesn’t generate much power but has a very quick release. Moreover, Heinola’s deceptive in being able to thread passes despite being in a shooting stance — a prime example of a no-look feed depicted below.
Defensively, Heinola is a bit of a mixed bag, and this is where I’m most curious about his future improvement. Personally, I see enough fundamental skills that if coupled with coaching to iron out kinks could lead him to become average to decent defensively at the NHL level, but it’s tough to speculate as an outsider how much is readily fixable.
Starting with the good, Heinola is solid at defending near the goal mouth despite his smaller stature. He can commonly be seen locking himself to the hip of the man in front and tying up his man or pouncing on the ensuing rebound.
Most defenders struggle with their back to the play, but in Heinola’s case, he looks especially prone to mistakes when the puck is moved below the goal line. There were more than a few instances where his partner was battling a forward behind the net while Heinola stared at the puck, not realizing he was drifting out of position.
Having said that, Heinola’s one-on-one defending on the rush is inconsistent with very rare breakups and the most immediate area of concern. What gives me hope that he could eventually figure these situations out as he matures is the strong gap he’s consistently able to maintain in the neutral zone.
In the clip above, Heinola begins fundamentally strong by backpedaling towards the middle of the ice, closer to his partner so he can defend within the dots and funnel the attacker to the outsider. From there, he leans on his strong lateral mobility to keep the puck carrier away from the middle of the ice on the rush.
Unfortunately, things often fall apart for Heinola when he reaches his defensive blueline. He’ll often get beat clean despite maintaining a tight gap and from my viewings it comes from two mistakes. For one, Heinola seems to have a tendency to stop moving his feet which prevents him from being able to match the attacker’s speed while entering the offensive zone.
Situations like these usually require a defender to use C cuts so that he doesn’t get caught flat-footed. The other issue is that Heinola isn’t able to take advantage and snuff out plays where he’s got a tight gap in place — getting beat too easily on the inside in some scenarios where he’s already done much of the hard work.
Many of these issues arise because Heinola fails to take advantage of situations where he can pivot, open his body and force the puck carrier to the boards with his frame while separating the puck. Witness such a case here.
The end result (a dump behind the net) is just fine, but you’d like to see Heinola be more aggressive in opening his body and taking the carrier to the boards. Watching the clip back, you’ll notice he only engages with his stick.
It’s tough for me to comment on how much of these flaws are coachable, but at the moment, one-on-defending certainly appears to be a concern. At the same time, most blueliners this age have defensive flaws to iron out (especially given the competition level of the Liiga) and it shouldn’t ultimately take away from Heinola’s compelling all-around package.
All in all, Heinola may not ever take a game over or wow you with highlight-reel plays, but he specializes in an efficient, puck-moving brand of hockey that becomes more creative and potent as space opens up in the offensive zone.
Heinola’s performance in Liiga couldn’t be more impressive from a statistical point of view. For starters, his offensive production enough for him to hold the highest SEAL adjusted scoring pace among all defencemen in this draft class.
Again, I don’t think he has the raw offensive upside of someone like Bowen Byram, but there’s no denying he has enough talent with the puck on his stick to be a decent point producer at the NHL level.
When breaking the production down throughout the season, you can note just how Heinola’s production took off after returning from the World Juniors.
After a slow start to the season, Heinola registered 12 points in his final 17 Liiga games to close out the regular season before adding another 4 points in 7 playoff games — adding up to a whopping 16 points in his final 24 contests.
The one caveat to keep in mind is that just 5 of his 14 regular season points came at 5-on-5. This isn’t meant to take anything away from Heinola’s production but needs to be mentioned as far as providing context.
Enough can’t be said for how impressive Heinola’s underlying profile looks for a draft-eligible player in Liiga. The 18-year-old took on a prominent role for Lukko this season and ranked fourth among the team’s blueliners in controlling 50.8% of the shot attempts when on the ice. This encouraging sign parlayed itself into actual goals as well, with Lukko controlling just shy of 60% of the goals with Heinola on the ice.
It’s worth mentioning that Heinola was the beneficiary of a 102.4 PDO, but it’s an impressive underlying performance nonetheless.
Rarely do you see draft-eligible defencemen score in Liiga as prolifically as Heinola did, so naturally, he’s left without many cohort comparables when examining pGPS.
You don’t wanna glean too much from a one-player cohort, but it is encouraging to see former top-4 defenceman Joni Pitkanen pop up as a historical comparable.
All told, Heinola presents an enticing all-around package that enabled him to contribute meaningfully on a competitive Lukko squad. In having said that, I’m not a big fan of the Heiskanen comparison. The latter has a more projectable frame, is a much better skater, defended at an elite level relative to his draft class and owned a stronger underlying profile as far as shot control in his draft-year (led HIFK with a 52.9% Corsi).
Still, that shouldn’t take anything away from Heinola’s game, who would be a solid bet for any team around the middle to back half of the first round.
Rolling Season Data
Raw data for the charts used in this article came from eliteprospects.com and liiga.fi.
Some clips were pulled from videos from prospectshifts.com. Check out Ville Heinola’s page here (paywall). Other clips were pulled from original broadcasts, with all rights reserved for the original broadcast companies.
Prospect contributor for NextGen Hockey and Canucks contributor for The Athletic Vancouver. Tracking microstats and focused on combining video and statistical analysis.