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Even in defeat, Miro Heiskanen's play continues to stand out for Stars

With monster minutes, impressive offensive instincts and reliability and responsibility in all three zones, the Stars rookie rearguard is embracing the playoff spotlight and turning heads throughout the NHL.

Forget for a second that Tyler Seguin’s game-tying goal in Game 3 of the second round tilt between the Stars and Blues turned out to be inconsequential. Forget, too, that Dallas surrendered the game winner to St. Louis mere minutes later, a tally that would seal a 4-3 victory and 2-1 series lead for the Blues. Now go back and watch Seguin’s marker and make note of two things that happened.

The first is Miro Heiskanen jumping up at the blueline to make an all-important keep in the offensive zone for the Stars, something he actually does twice if you include his puck pickup after Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo knocked it free from Mats Zuccarello. And the second is what Heiskanen does the moment he decides to jump into the play. Skating wide, he catches Selke Trophy finalist Ryan O’Reilly flatfooted and gets to the edge. Then, Heiskanen out-waits Pietrangelo, who drops to one knee in an attempt to cut off the passing lanes, before firing a hard, pinpoint-accurate pass onto the tape of Seguin, who needed only to tap the feed home. The post-goal reaction said it all. Seguin turned back to Heiskanen and shouted, “What a play!”

What a play, indeed. And the thing is that more often than not, those are the three words that onlookers have uttered to themselves, whether quietly or in exclamation, when watching Heiskanen throughout this post-season. It started with his one-goal, two-point post-season debut against the Nashville Predators, a game in which he was initially credited with two goals before a late scoring change, and it has been followed by impressive performances in each subsequent outing. Of course, to those in Dallas, this is far from a surprise.

By now, there’s likely been enough said about Heiskanen’s Calder Trophy candidacy and the fact that he didn’t finish among the top three in voting. And sure enough, if you take a quick look at the social media response to the NHL’s announcement of the Calder class – the Blues’ Jordan Binnington, Buffalo Sabres’ Rasmus Dahlin and Vancouver Canucks’ Elias Pettersson are the so-called finalists – you’ll find more than enough indignation from Stars faithful, the charge was arguably led by Seguin, whose one-emoji response expressed his puzzlement.

The confusion is and was well-warranted, too. While true that the margin between Heiskanen, a surefire fourth-place finisher, and whoever winds up third in voting is almost assuredly razor thin, it’s bizarre to think that history won’t show Heiskanen as one of the top three skaters during his rookie season. That’s not to slight the performances of Calder-favorite Pettersson, Dahlin or Binnington, either. Rather, it’s praise for Heiskanen’s play, which included 12 goals, tied for the sixth-most of any rookie defender in the post-lockout era, and 33 points, which is tied with four others for the 25th-highest scoring season by a rookie rearguard since the 2005-06 season.

Despite his output, though, and despite praising his offense at the top of this story, it’s not scoring that has really made Heiskanen stand out. Sure, it's helped and his instincts with the puck on his stick have proven to be impeccable, but it’s the three-zone reliability and the incredible level of responsibility that has been heaped upon Heiskanen that is most impressive for a defender his age.

It was evident enough during the regular season, especially in the back half of the season, how much faith the Stars coaching staff had in the 19-year-old, particularly given John Klingberg and Esa Lindell were the only Dallas blueliners who had an ice time average greater than Heiskanen’s 23:07 by season’s end. But he has been further rewarded in the post-season by Jim Montgomery and Co., and Heiskanen is embracing the ever-growing spotlight and fighting for top spot on the Stars’ back end. Through nine games, he's averaging 25:46 per game, including three contests in which his ice time has climbed above 28 minutes, led by a 32:25 performance in the first-round series-clinching Game 6 win against the Nashville Predators.

Heiskanen isn’t simply playing these minutes, however. He’s thriving. Offensively, that's apparent enough. Heiskanen’s two goals and four points this post-season rank second among Stars defensemen, three points back of John Klingberg, and the rookie defender sits behind only Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn in shots on goal. But he’s also impressed defensively.

Though not immune to a mistake or two – he is a rookie, after all – Heiskanen ranks second among Stars defensemen with a 48.7 Corsi percentage, 50.3 shots percentage, 53.9 scoring chance percentage and 59.8 high-danger chance percentage at 5-on-5. His goals for percentage is an even 50 percent. Contextualize that against the performances of his blueline counterparts and Heiskanen stands out further. His percentages relative to his teammates are all positive, ranging from plus-1.6 percent in Corsi percentage to a whopping plus-17.1 percent in high-danger chances.

How he impacts the series from here on out is to be seen. There’s little doubt, however, he will play a significant part in any success the Stars have through the remainder of this round and remainder of the post-season, should they come back and advance. No matter Monday’s result, though, and no matter how this series ends, what is abundantly clear is that Dallas has a young star on their hands. And while he’s not going to win the Calder, his regular season play and post-season performance has given reason enough to believe Norris Trophy candidacy lies in his future.

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