Film Room: Stars rookie Heiskanen skating out of Dahlin's shadow
The NHL's top rookie defenseman plays for Buffalo, but he has some serious competition in the Lone Star State.
Miro Heiskanen, who doesn't turn 20 until July, has been a bright spot in a tumultuous Dallas Stars season. And while No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin understandably remains the apple of fans' eyes when it comes to first-year defensemen, Heiskanen could be a franchise cornerstone too.
Through 46 NHL games, Heiskanen's numbers aren't the flashiest - he's got nine goals and 11 assists - but his puck-moving helps his Stars create offense. He's proven difficult to rattle, even when he makes mistakes. And the factors driving his success are the same things that endeared him to scouts and made him the franchise's highest-drafted player in the Dallas era at No. 3 overall in 2017.
A key feature of Heiskanen's game is his skating, which he showed off on his second assist of a Dec. 9 game against the Vegas Golden Knights:
Heiskanen skates down to retrieve the puck and builds speed as he carries it through the neutral zone and into Vegas' end - then abruptly pivots and changes position to protect the puck when an opponent moves into his lane. His edge work and agility allow him to shift direction in a split second. Rather than turning over the puck, he's able to stay on top of it and fire a pass to Esa Lindell, who eventually scores a power-play goal.
Stars fans likely recall the Jan. 2 game against the New Jersey Devils primarily for Miles Wood's hit on Dallas captain Jamie Benn, but it was also the second two-goal outing of Heiskanen's NHL career. He scored the first goal in the immediate aftermath of the hit and subsequent fight, with the teams playing four on four:
At the beginning of the play, Heiskanen displays his puck control and excellent hands. His initial shot is denied, but when he gets the puck again a few moments later, he fakes out goalie Mackenzie Blackwood and makes it count. (Heiskanen would score his second goal in the game on his backhand.)
Before Heiskanen was drafted, there was some concern that he needed to improve his shot, despite his quick release. Although some of his shots are obviously effective at the NHL level already, adding upper-body strength would help him put more power behind all of them.
Good defensive play can be harder to recognize than good offensive play; it's more often something that you notice when it's missing. Heiskanen's game is no exception. When the Stars played the Montreal Canadiens on New Year's Eve, his defensive lapse in overtime contributed to Montreal's game-winner, but he was superb during the rest of the contest, as he is here:
With just over a minute left in the first period, the Canadiens clear the puck. Heiskanen outraces the Montreal skater, using his body positioning to hold him off, and carries the puck up ice. He successfully blows past another Canadiens player and then makes a perfect pass to fellow defenseman John Klingberg to kick off a four-on-three rush. It's a great example of how good defense can quickly turn into offense.
Heiskanen also displayed his defensive prowess against the Devils:
With three minutes to go in the third period, the Devils looking for the tying goal, and goaltender Ben Bishop tied up on the other side of the crease, Heiskanen finds himself in the right place at the right time and sweeps the puck away and up the ice before it can cross the goal line.
Heiskanen's a composed, steady player. That's partly because he doesn't just see where the puck is, but he's able to project where it's going to be. Of course, he makes some mistakes - he's a rookie who's still adjusting to North American ice, never mind the NHL - but he has the skill set to be successful at this level for a long time. In the first period against Vegas, he exhibited several of his best qualities on a single play:
Heiskanen receives a pass and skates the puck through the neutral zone and into the Knights' end. When it looks like the defense might cut him off, he passes to a teammate. He then heads to the net to receive a pass, firing a shot at Vegas netminder Marc-Andre Fleury without hesitation.
Though that play didn't produce a goal, it does show off Heiskanen's skating, puck skills, and perhaps the most important part of his game: his hockey IQ. Heiskanen consistently knows where he needs to be in order to be the most effective. He also recognizes when he can handle a situation on his own and when it's better for him to get the puck to a teammate (and can often do so successfully). That's mature decision-making for a teenager in his first NHL season, and it should serve as the foundation for a productive career.
Hannah Stuart keeps a close eye on both drafted and draft-eligible prospects and can usually be found trying to learn more about hockey analytics. She has previously written for FanRag Sports, The Hockey Writers, and Hooked On Hockey Magazine, and can also be found at High Heels and High Sticks. Find her on Twitter @HockeyWthHannah.