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Stars' rookie standout Heiskanen showing skill beyond his years

Dallas' rookie defender has a game and maturity that belies his age. He’s destined to someday wear the ‘C’ in Big D.

"He’s like Tom Brady.”

It’s the sort of hyperbole that makes you do a double-take, especially in football-mad Dallas. Putting a 19-year-old in the same rarified air as a five-time NFL champion is quite a bold statement, but Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen is turning heads in Dallas and racking up rookie records that put him in company with Mike Modano among franchise leaders. Jim Montgomery’s comparison to Brady appears to be apt. “He knows the game plan, and he knows where his outs are all the time,” said the Stars coach.

With his play on the ice, it’s easy to forget Heiskanen is a rookie and could be in his second year of college if he weren’t a professional hockey player, a fact not lost on the former NCAA coach. “If I would’ve had him at Denver as a sophomore, we would’ve won a couple of national championships,” Montgomery said, laughing. “His skills on the ice and maturity off the ice are superior to most 19-year-olds in any discipline in the world. I think that’s what makes him so elite.”

The luck of the draft lottery took the young Finn to Dallas with the third overall pick in 2017. One of the only things Heiskanen knew about the Stars at the time was that Finnish legend Jere Lehtinen had spent his entire 15-year career with the club. Now the GM for Finland’s national team, Lehtinen spoke with a spark in his voice about getting to watch Heiskanen during his time with IFK in the Finnish league.

Lehtinen sees Heiskanen as a key part of the national team for years to come, calling him one of the best players on the team already and one of the country’s top defensemen. “He stood out right away,” Lehtinen said. “He’s one of those guys who is just a player. He wants to play the game like he’s playing an outdoor pond game. How he sees the game and knows before things happen what to do next. His skating and hockey sense go along with that because he’s so smart that way.”

Previously described as a “can’t miss” prospect, teammates now call Heiskanen unique and poised, comparing him to Erik Karlsson and John Klingberg, but perhaps with more subtlety and not as flashy. His confidence and hockey sense are unsurpassed, and he’s dialed in and reliable. One player said he “didn’t think anyone could expect more” from Heiskanen than what he is delivering for Dallas in his rookie campaign.

At first, though, the Stars’ coaching staff wasn’t quite sure what they had with him. “He seems to just look at the video and just get it,” Montgomery said. “You wonder if he’s getting it, but then you see him go on the ice and never make the same mistake twice, or he’ll execute even better.”

Heiskanen doesn’t waste time off the ice, either. “In three days when he got here, he had a bank account set up, cell phone set up and was on his way to getting his social security number. It takes most people three weeks to get that accomplished,” Montgomery said.

Lehtinen believes the atmosphere in Dallas helps young players acclimate to the NHL a little easier. “It’s different there in Dallas, a little easier,” he said. “You’re more under the microscope in Canada.”

Dallas teammate Jason Spezza knows a thing or two about expectations after being drafted second overall by Ottawa in 2001. “When you’re in a Canadian city or a traditional hockey market it can be a little more challenging off the ice, whereas he’s left to just worry a little more about what’s going on at the rink and outside the rink you’re really allowed to live your own life.”

On the ice, injuries to key defensive players through November and December forced Heiskanen into heavy rotation on Dallas’ top pairing with countryman Esa Lindell. Those two along with fellow defenseman Julius Honka and winger Roope Hintz form a significant Finnish cadre for Dallas. Teammates and coaches alike praise the work that “veteran” Lindell, himself only in his third NHL year, has done to integrate Heiskanen into the team and help him at and away from the rink. “Whenever we’re on the road, Esa is the guy taking him and all the Finns out to a restaurant,” Montgomery said. “When we’re out, they’re like little puppies following Esa around.”

Said Hintz: “It’s easier to come here when there are other Finnish guys who know what to do and can help you do your stuff. (Heiskanen) is a humble guy. You may think he doesn’t talk a lot, but when you get to know him, he talks a lot and jokes.”

Spezza agrees on that point, even if not everyone in the room can understand those jokes yet. “You can tell he has a good sense of humor,” Spezza said. “We don’t hear a lot from him unless he’s spoken to at this point. I don’t know if he’s fully comfortable yet speaking up and telling jokes and that kind of stuff. With the Finnish guys, they have lots of laughs among them.”

As a rookie already playing at a high level, the question of donning a letter and becoming an official team leader is sure to surface in the not-too-distant future. The model of the high-energy, rambunctious captaincy with a raucous pump-up speech at the intermission doesn’t fit Heiskanen. That’s no matter, though. The Stars have a built-in prototype for determined, consistent leadership in their room right now who’s ready to mentor the next generation: Jamie Benn. The current Stars captain was a quiet presence for several years before earning the ‘C’ with his on-ice performance, but now fits the bill for exactly the type of leader that Heiskanen could be in the future. Lead by example and use your voice to jump in when called for, amplifying its effect in its only occasional usage. “He’s going to handle that well,” Lehtinen said. “He doesn’t need to change his personality. I don’t see him being too loud, but he shows (his leadership) on the ice. Those guys, when they have something to say, they’ll say it, but the main thing is he shows it on the ice.”

Spezza wore a letter in Ottawa and Dallas for most of the past decade and sees Heiskanen’s future leadership as inevitable. “When you’re as good a player as he is, you’re going to be a leader whether you like it or not,” Spezza said. “He’s going to grow into that role. He has the demeanor to be a leader. He does things right. He comes in, works out, stretches and takes care of himself. You can tell by the way he warms up for games that he’s got a plan, he’s not flying by the seat of his pants.”

Added Lehtinen: “A lot of Finns are a little quiet, but the way you play hockey for fun and get on the ice whenever you can,you show your passion that way instead of saying it out of your mouth. When he gets on the ice, Miro says that.” — Stephen Meserve

WESTERN CONFERENCE ROOKIE WATCH

ANAHEIM DUCKS: Every pre-season forecast of Anaheim’s depth chart had Kiefer Sherwood somewhere mid-lineup for AHL San Diego. It’s not like the 23-year-old Miami University winger lit it up in the NCAA or during an AHL trial last spring. But his plucky resolve has made him a Ducks regular.

ARIZONA COYOTES: Adin Hill’s third season in the AHL started out poorly. He had a 3.22 GAA and .871 SP in six games for Tucson and lost the starting job to Hunter Miska. But an injury to Antti Raanta opened the door for Hill, 22, to start again with fresh NHL stats – and he’s been impressive.

CALGARY FLAMES: The NHL stat line for Rasmus Andersson, an offensive defenseman, isn’t impressive. But the smooth Swede has been a revelation for coach Bill Peters, showing veteran poise, smarts, mobility and defensive awareness. He’s often on the ice in the last minute of must-score games.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Dominik Kahun, a small, smart, two-way forward, had settled in as Jonathan Toews’ regular right winger. Kahun, 23, signed after winning three straight German League titles and Olympic silver in 2018. He’s familiar with North America, having played two years of major junior.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: Vladislav Kamenev, a versatile and defensively sound center, was supposed to be a key component of last year’s Matt Duchene trade, but he’s been snakebitten. Last season, he broke his arm in his first game with the Avs. This season, a December shoulder injury required surgery.

DALLAS STARS: Among 2015 first-rounders, only four have fewer career NHL games than Denis Gurianov, who went 12th overall. The big, rangy net-crasher is still just 21 with a high ceiling. He exploded for 28 points in 23 AHL games this season and earned an extended NHL call-up by December.

EDMONTON OILERS: At 30, six-year KHL veteran Mikko Koskinen is too old to get Calder Trophy votes. But his 6-foot-7 frame, consistency and knack for big-game performances will make him a sought-after UFA in July if he can maintain his numbers, which include a pro-rated six shutouts.

LOS ANGELES KINGS: For a goal-starved team like the Kings, contributions from unlikely sources are a gift from the hockey gods. Undrafted Matt Luff had just 12 goals in 67 games as an AHL rookie last season, but his potent wrist shot and quick release had him fourth in goals for the Kings.

MINNESOTA WILD: Jordan Greenway, the NHL’s tallest rookie skater at 6-foot-6, was on pace for double-digit goals. He brings intimidating forechecking and a net-front presence. A shaky start resulted in a demotion, but he returned with confidence after a hat trick and four points in two AHL games.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: It is not Eeli Tolvanen’s time...yet. The Preds’ No. 1 forward prospect finally got a look in December for four games, notching his first career goal. But, as coach Peter Laviolette pointed out, the 19-year-old was primarily an injury replacement. He was struggling in the AHL.

SAN JOSE SHARKS: When the Sharks traded depth forwards Chris Tierney, Mikkel Boedker and Rudolfs Balcers, it opened the door for 24-year-old free-agent signee Antti Suomela to compete for a bottom-six job. He was a point-per-game player in Finland last season and has shown good puck skills.

ST. LOUIS BLUES: One reason for St. Louis’ disappointing first half: rookies falling short of expectations. Robert Thomas needed 16 games to get his first NHL goal. The Blues saw enough improvement to keep him around at 19. His intelligent game allows him to play on any line at center or the wing.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS: The idea of 30-30 (goal-assist) men in NCAA hockey is rare because the schedule is barely 40 games, but Adam Gaudette did it, and that won him the Hobey Baker Award. His production has been sparse as an NHL rookie, but the 22-year-old spent time centering the third line.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS: Speed and puck skills have never been an issue for Tomas Hyka. It’s size and strength that are keeping the 25-year-old Czech right winger out of the NHL on a regular basis. The 5-foot-11, 160-pounder is productive at the AHL level but struggles in high-traffic NHL situations.

WINNIPEG JETS: The Brendan Lemieux Experience is exactly what you’d expect from Claude’s son. Brendan is an agent of chaos. He already has two double-digit PIM games, earning a misconduct in one and a match penalty in another, and he also enjoyed his first career multi-goal game on Dec. 31.

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