Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ville Heinola is reportedly growing frustrated with being sent to the AHL again to start 2022-23, according to his agent.
Allain Roy of RSG Hockey told The Hockey News his client is looking for a chance to play some NHL hockey for the Jets.
“I think everybody in hockey that has seen him play realizes he’s now at that point where he has made an NHL regular expendable,” Roy said Tuesday afternoon.
Ever since Heinola made Winnipeg’s opening night roster a few months after being drafted 20th overall in 2019, Jets fans anxiously await his permanent arrival. And how can you blame them? Heinola – a 5-foot-11 smooth skating, puck-moving blueliner – looked like a stud, a surefire bet to become a top-four blueliner sooner than later.
The left-shot Finn recorded five points and averaged 18:04 TOI/GP through eight NHL games and in turn, became just the seventh defenseman of the last decade to play at least five NHL games as an 18-year-old – joining Jamie Drysdale, Rasmus Dahlin, Jakob Chychrun, Noah Hanifin, Aaron Ekblad and Nikita Zadorov.
But in the three years following that first stint, Heinola, 21, has only played in 17 NHL games.
“I’ve been in the same spot for a couple years now, so it’s definitely not fun,” Heinola said after his first practice with the Manitoba Moose on Oct. 13.
Heinola has been the Jets’ final training camp cut in consecutive seasons.
Last year, the additions of Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt left little room for Heinola, and he understood that. He embraced the chance to be a top-pairing all-situations-type defenseman with the Moose as opposed to getting scarce NHL minutes. He ascended as one of the AHL’s best defensemen.
Heinola recorded 0.54 primary points per game — the most of any under-22 AHL defensemen over the last eight seasons – and according to InStat, he posted a 61.4 Corsi For percentage while logging a team-high 22:17 minutes of ice time per game.
“Once he gets a fair shot, I don’t think we’re going to see him with us again,” Moose captain Jimmy Oligny said back in late April.
Moose coach Mark Morrison said at his end-of-year press conference in May that he thought Heinola was excellent through five playoff games and played the type of game that he needs for the NHL.
Despite all of that, though, Heinola wasn’t able to move up the depth chart this season, and a large reason for that is beyond his play itself, but rather, Winnipeg’s logjam on defense.
The main point of contention from Heinola’s camp stems from the belief that he’s done everything asked of him to become NHL-ready, and he’s never really given much runway at the NHL level, even as opportunities have arisen.
When the Jets recalled Heinola ahead of a back-to-back series in December – on the heels of playing what Moose assistant coach Eric Dubois called a “perfect game” (even without scoring a point) – the Jets scratched him for both games, opting to dress depth defenseman Nathan Beaulieu instead.
Even after he registered three points in four NHL games at the tail end of the regular season, Heinola was made a healthy scratch once Nate Schmidt returned from COVID-19. Mind you, the Jets were far removed from the playoff hunt by then.
“Ville doesn’t deserve a guaranteed spot in the lineup,” Roy said. “He deserves a shot to play a run of games to show he can do it. And that’s all we’re asking for.”
While Roy confirmed that no formal trade request had been made, he was forthright in stating that there needs to be a solution. This isn’t a case of a player wanting out of Winnipeg – Roy made a point of saying Heinola likes living in Manitoba’s capital – it’s a matter of NHL opportunity. Or a lack thereof.
“At some point, that decision's going to have to be made because the asset (Heinola) is going to stagnate and start to go backwards,” Roy said. “That’s going to be the issue. I don’t think it’s going backwards yet, but definitely, the frustration's setting in, and that’s never a good sign.”
The problem is, the Jets have so many bodies on the back end that even Logan Stanley’s recent injury doesn't benefit Heinola’s fortunes. Dylan Samberg, another long-heralded defenseman, has been in and out of the lineup and is ahead of Heinola on the depth chart. Jets coach Rick Bowness also said on Wednesday that he’d like to get Kyle Capobianco into a game soon.
Elliotte Friedman reported in his recent 32 Thoughts that Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is getting calls from teams about his defense surplus.
“What was the plan before Ville got to Winnipeg this summer? Were they trying to move defensemen? Were they trying to create room for him? I don’t know. That’s Chevy’s job,” Roy said.
The Jets probably see things differently. By traditional standards, he’s not considered to be a “safe” player defensively, whereas Samberg – or even Stanley – are. He's also only played 70 AHL games across three seasons while spending some time on loan in the Finnish league in 2019-20 and 2020-21. Bowness talked about Heinola's game with reporters in late September.
“Listen, this kid can move the puck, he’s got great wheels with the puck, heads up, I get all that,” Bowness said. But we’ve got to learn: Can we win with this guy? That’s what it comes down to.”
Heinola is who he is, though. He's an offensive defenseman who's going to take risks to generate offence. None of Winnipeg’s defensemen have the type of skill package he has.
Mistakes are going to happen. Growing pains will occur. But for him to have a real shot at taking that next step, he’ll have to get more leash. Stanley, a former first round pick, was given a lot of rope in the early days of his NHL career. Kristian Vesalainen, another former first round pick, got three points in 53 NHL games on the fourth line last season.
Heinola has yet to get that extra bit of rope. The hype surrounding him could very well go down as just being smoke and mirrors, but until the Jets give him a real shot, they’ll never know for certain.