It turns out if you want to get Miro Heiskanen rattled, the best thing to do is to force him to talk, preferably about himself and in front of a lot of people. That’s not really his thing. Former NHL great and countryman Kimmo Timonen has met and spoken to Heiskanen once and said he got more information out of Heiskanen’s girlfriend than he managed to pry out of the 20-year-old son of a kindergarten teacher and an automatic-door repairman from suburban Helsinki. So there’s that.
This will be good information to know within the next couple years, because that will explain why Heiskanen’s Norris Trophy acceptance speech will likely be a little on the dull side. You know it’s going to happen, because most of the hockey world does. And so does he. “I want to be the best defenseman in the NHL someday,” Heiskanen said. “I think it’s possible.”
There have been 63 Finnish-born-and-trained defensemen in NHL history, and there are those who think Heiskanen has the potential to be the best ever. His main competition at the moment would be Teppo Numminen or Timonen. “He’s almost already better than them,” said Ismo Lehkonen, a longtime Finnish coach, television analyst and father of Montreal Canadiens winger Artturi Lehkonen. “He’s so young, and he’s getting better and better all the time. The sky is the limit for this guy.”
For the record, Heiskanen knows exactly what it means when someone says a guy has ice running through his veins. Back home in Finland, they call him ‘The Ice Man.’ For a kid who just turned 20 last summer and is playing in the world’s best league, Heiskanen has all-world poise and patience to go along with excellent agility and elite-level skating and on-ice vision. In short, nothing, absolutely nothing, seems to faze him. It’s a gift Heiskanen remembers having since he was a child, and while it might not be fair to compare him to a Hall of Famer now – ah, what the heck, we’re already saying he’ll be the best Finnish defenseman of all-time – he reminds a lot of people of Nick Lidstrom when it comes to on-ice demeanor. Heiskanen also has a voice to rival a classic rock station DJ on a steady diet of scotch and cigarettes in terms of its bass level, which adds to the ultra cool-and-collected persona. “I’ve always been like that,” Heiskanen said. “I get that from my parents, I think. I don’t know. I’m not sure where it comes from, but it’s a good thing to have, I think.”
I want to be the best defenseman in the NHL someday. I think it’s possible.
– Miro Heiskanen
In a season after they came within an overtime goal of going to the Western Conference final, the Dallas Stars went all-in on winning a Cup, gathering veteran and proven talent in a move that was not paying off at all early in the season.
Out of the gate, the Stars were one of the biggest disappointments in the NHL, but Heiskanen picked up where he left off after an impressive rookie season, one that irked Stars fans when Heiskanen was not a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.
Economizing his words when the finalists were announced during the second round of the playoffs, Heiskanen said the final three – Elias Pettersson of Vancouver, Jordan Binnington of St. Louis and Rasmus Dahlin of Buffalo – are really good players and that he was just having fun still playing hockey.
And you thought all his subtle moves were reserved for on the ice. “I think he can be the best defenseman ever from Finland,” Timonen said. “He’s already in the NHL, and he’s playing big minutes and a big role. I didn’t get to the NHL until I was 23, and he’s doing this when he’s 19. He’s going to play a ton of games, and if he stays healthy, I don’t see why not.”
Heiskanen is already showing signs of being an elite-level all-purpose blueliner. They’re the kinds of players with whom teams tend to win. Those close to Heiskanen marvel at how he simply goes to the rink and goes about his business with little fanfare and absolutely no maintenance, then goes home as though he’s just finished up a shift in the mailroom. It’s remarkable, really. “It’s like that scratch golfer who just hits the ball down the middle,” said Stars goalie Ben Bishop. “Then he hits it to the green, then makes two putts. At the end of the round you’re like, ‘How did that guy shoot one-under?’ That’s kind of Miro. He just does it all. He’s not bombing it, driving it 400 yards, making unbelievable shots. He just does the right thing. That’s why he doesn’t get the most attention. I mean, he’s starting to now. Everybody’s talking about him, but he didn’t get as much recognition last year.”
I think he can be the best defenseman ever from Finland. He’s playing big minutes and a big role.
– Kimmo Timonen
That maturity and poise have extended to Heiskanen’s life off the ice as well. The Stars are forming something of a Finnish connection, at least when it comes to their future. They have Esa Lindell, who watched over Heiskanen for much of his rookie season, but Heiskanen came to Dallas as a 19-year-old last season clearly ready to handle life on and off the ice.
By the time he arrived in North America, Heiskanen already had two years of experience playing against men in the Finnish League, the latter of which saw him win the Pekka Rautakallio Award as the circuit’s top defenseman. He also led the Finnish League in ice time at 25:06 per game, which prepared him well for the 23 minutes per game he’d log as a rookie and the 24-plus per game he’d be playing as a 20-year-old.
In his second pro year in Finland at 18, he also shared an apartment with his girlfriend, Julia Taka-Aho, albeit one that was 10 minutes away from where his parents lived. On the ice, by the time he had played his first NHL game, Heiskanen had logged two years of pro hockey in Finland and had already appeared in a World Junior Championship, a World Championship and an Olympic tournament.
“He’s really mature for his age,” said Stars GM Jim Nill. “When a lot of these kids come to North America in their first year, you’ve got to grab them by the hand and go and get an apartment for them and get a bank account set up. He’s one of those guys who just does it on his own. He was like, ‘I’m OK, I’ve got this.’ The way he is on the ice is the way he is off the ice. He’s never rattled and very confident – but not cocky.”
In the 2017 draft, Heiskanen was taken third overall after Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick and one pick before the Colorado Avalanche took Cale Makar. With Makar and Heiskanen playing in the same division one year apart, it will be interesting to see how the two players develop over the next couple seasons. It’s not a stretch to suggest that both will be perennial Norris Trophy finalists by the time they’re in their mid-20s.
To be sure, both are part of a cohort of young, dynamic and NHL-ready defensemen who are serving notice that perhaps it’s not necessary for a blueliner to play 200 NHL games before establishing himself among the better players at his position. And while Makar probably has more offensive upside, both are terrific skaters with outstanding vision and hockey sense that is off the charts. And both are quiet but confident.
Heiskanen said he was a little surprised at how well he did during his rookie season but learned quickly that he belonged in the NHL. Those around him knew the same. “Almost right away, pretty much from the time he stepped on the ice in camp,” said former Star Jason Spezza when asked when he knew Heiskanen might be a special player. “Jim Nill had told me how high they were on him, but Jim’s the type of guy who likes to downplay everything. But then when you saw him, you knew the way he skates and the way he sees the ice, he was pretty special from Day 1. He’s 19, and he’s a pro. He gets to the rink early. He works on his game after practice. He’s got it figured out.”
Oh, to have things all figured out by the time you’re 20. Along with Lindell and John Klingberg – as well as first-round pick Thomas Harley as a long-term investment – the Stars are well positioned on the back end for the foreseeable future. And while Calgary’s Mark Giordano won the Norris Trophy last season at 35, the youth movement’s time will come soon. There’s Heiskanen and Makar, along with the likes of Rasmus Dahlin, Thomas Chabot, Charlie McAvoy and Quinn Hughes, who are young and ready and eager to make an impact. “I guess there are people who are liking how I’m playing,” Heiskanen said, “so that feels really good.”