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Heiskanen quietly becomes force for playoff-bound Stars

Rookie defenseman leads by example, impresses veterans

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

DALLAS -- How good is Miro Heiskanen? Listen to the Dallas Stars describe their rookie defenseman.

"He's such a unique player for a 19-year-old," said forward Jamie Benn, the captain. "It's pretty amazing what he's done this year."

Heiskanen arrived in Dallas hyped as the No. 3 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. The Stars hadn't selected a player so high since 1988, when they were the Minnesota North Stars and took Hockey Hall of Fame center Mike Modano No. 1. And of Heiskanen, center Tyler Seguin said: "He's only exceeded expectations."

Goalie Ben Bishop has played with Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Erik Karlsson of the San Jose Sharks, each a winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman. And of Heiskanen, he said: "He's one of the better defensemen I've ever played with."

Multiple people used the same words, like "calm" and "effortless," and made the same observations: great skater with a great stick; acts and plays well beyond his years.

"He is like nothing I've ever seen before," defenseman Ben Lovejoy said.

The Stars (42-31-7) will be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Heiskanen's first season, clinching a berth for the first time since the 2015-16 season with a 6-2 win against the Philadelphia Flyers at American Airlines Center on Tuesday. 

Heiskanen has 33 points (12 goals, 21 assists), 10th among rookies and well behind Vancouver Canucks center Elias Pettersson, who leads rookies with 65 points (27 goals, 38 assists) and is the clear favorite to win the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.

Heiskanen ranks second among rookie defensemen to Rasmus Dahlin of the Buffalo Sabres, who has 41 points (eight goals, 33 assists).

"I think I can play still better than what I'm doing right now," Heiskanen said. "Score more points. A lot of opportunities and haven't scored."

Heiskanen is minus-10 too.

But the rating is deceiving. Heiskanen has been on the ice for 15 empty-net goals against. He's averaging 23:09 of ice time, most among rookie skaters and 29th among NHL skaters, in all situations against top competition. The Stars have controlled 50.3 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts with him on the ice.

"If he's not up for the Calder Trophy, I think it's a huge mistake," Bishop said. "I would take this kid above any rookie in the League, hands down. I mean, he's going to be an absolute star."

Whatever happens with the Calder, Heiskanen wants more.

Watch: Go behind the scenes for an inside look at Miro Heiskanen's life in Dallas

"Of course, I want to be best defenseman in the world someday," Heiskanen said in a video the Stars shot before he played in the 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Game in San Jose. "Maybe that's my goal."

* * *

Heiskanen developed his skills with ample ice time growing up in Espoo, Finland.

"There's so many outdoor rinks in Finland, so it's easy to go somewhere and play," he said. "I was almost every day in outdoor rinks if I didn't have practices."

Last season, he played for Finland in the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship, the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and the 2018 IIHF World Championship and played for Helsinki in Finland's top professional league.

So nothing has seemed too big for him in Big D.

"Just came here and didn't think about too much where I am," he said. "Just tried to do my thing and play my own game. Wasn't that nervous."

The Stars laugh about Heiskanen's second NHL shift.

Watch: Miro Heiskanen impresses in second NHL shift

After a face-off in the defensive zone against the Arizona Coyotes at American Airlines Center on Oct. 4, he carried the puck up the left wing almost the length of the ice and passed across the low slot to center Tyler Pitlick. Then he wristed a shot from the high slot. Then he skated backward to defend a rush, angled off an opponent against the boards and stole the puck. Then he took a pass and danced away from an opponent. Then he carried the puck up ice, eluded an opponent, gained the red line, dumped in the puck and went off for a change. 

"He plays like he's 26," Stars color commentator Daryl Reaugh said on the TV broadcast before comparing him to Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Niedermayer.

The Stars laugh about lots of shifts that came afterward too.

General manager Jim Nill can't remember the specific game. Doesn't matter. Heiskanen raced back to break up a 2-on-1.

"I remember talking to players after the game," Nill said. "Everybody's on the bench, 'Oh, it's 2-on-1.' And all of a sudden they looked, 'Oh, Miro's out there. That's OK.' He caught them by our blue line. Just backchecking. He does that numerous times. 'Uh-oh. We're in trouble.' And all of a sudden he shows up."

Coach Jim Montgomery remembers a sequence against the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center on Feb. 12. Heiskanen broke up a play behind the net and moved the puck up to the wing. After a turnover, he poked at the puck in a scrum, avoided a hit, gained possession of the puck and sent a backhand saucer pass over an opponent's stick.

"We went on a 3-on-2, and he just turned and changed like it was no big deal," Montgomery said. "He made three special plays in five seconds, and I was just like … I talked to him afterwards, the next day. I said, 'You remember that play?' He said, 'That was a pretty good backhand sauce, eh?' "

Lovejoy remembers the end of regulation against the Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center on Feb. 28. It was Lovejoy's third game since the New Jersey Devils traded him to the Stars five days earlier, and it was tied 3-3. Which meant he could witness his new teammate skate on the open ice in 3-on-3 overtime.

"I just look at him, and I'm just like, 'I can't wait to watch you do this,' " Lovejoy said. "He just smiled and went out there and did his job."

Heiskanen eluded Kings center Jeff Carter and dished off the puck; then took a pass, skated up the left wing and wristed a shot; then broke up a 2-on-1 by knocking down a Carter pass; then gained the offensive zone and went off for a change. Later, forward Roope Hintz gave the Stars a 4-3 victory.

For the most part, though, Heiskanen doesn't make the flashy play. He makes the simple play and makes it look easy.

When he makes mistakes, he doesn't repeat them. Montgomery said the Stars haven't had to show him video individually once all season because he picks up everything from team video sessions.

"A couple times I've looked over at him after he's had kind of a shift where he'd kind of made, like, a young player's decision, which is going to happen," Seguin said. "I kind of look over, see how he is. He's not a guy that sulks. He doesn't put his head down. The next shift, he just flies by all of us and puts up a good play."

* * *

Seguin was the No. 2 pick of the 2010 NHL Draft and broke into the NHL with the Boston Bruins at age 18 in 2010-11. He had to deal with even more hype than Heiskanen has. But he didn't play as big of a role as a rookie, with a veteran team headed toward the Stanley Cup, and had a different personality.

Video: Analyzing Miro Heiskanen's immediate impact on Stars

"Tough to relate to him, because I talked way more, probably in a bad way, though," Seguin said with a laugh. "He's got a bit more of a humbleness. … He's a quiet guy. We don't really critique him that much on anything."

If anything, the Stars tease Heiskanen about his stoicism. 

"I always scream at him, 'Miro's excited! Miro's excited!' because he's got the same face all the time, no matter what happen," defenseman Roman Polak said. "He might win a million dollars in the lottery or something, and he would show up (and say with blank expression), 'I've got a ticket for a million dollars.' Nothing. No, like, smile, smirk or something."

This is a teenager from a foreign country who already lives with his girlfriend and their dog in an apartment downtown, five minutes from American Airlines Center.

"If he's ever nervous or if he's ever angry or if he's ever something, you don't notice," Seguin said. "I think his game's going to go to another level when he does find even more emotion. I think that's maybe the one thing that he could probably find -- unless it's just how he just doesn't show it. We're still learning about him. … 

"We're just touching on what he can do. I think he's going to be talked about for many years to come."

When the NHL held a press conference at Cotton Bowl Stadium on March 20, promoting the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1 between the Stars and the Nashville Predators, Heiskanen stood on the field in his No. 4 Dallas jersey. He looked up at the stands, expected to hold about 70,000 fans for the game, and seemed comfortable on the stage.

Hey, he played outdoors in front of about 20,000 fans in Finland last season. No big deal.

"I don't think about it anymore," he said. "I'm not nervous or something like that. I think I can play everywhere."

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