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Why Miro Heiskanen believes he's ready to make NHL leap for Stars

The touted defense prospect has 'all the makings' for Dallas, which plans to bring him along slowly

by Mark Stepneski @StarsInsideEdge / Inside Edge

Dallas Stars training camp is less than one month away, and that means it is time for players to start trickling into Frisco to ramp up preparations for the upcoming season. A few players hit the ice this week, including highly touted defense prospect Miro Heiskanen.

Heiskanen, Dallas' first round pick (third overall) in the 2017 NHL Draft, arrived in town Monday and has been skating this week with Stars captain Jamie Benn, goaltender Ben Bishop and a small group of other players.

"I am so excited. It's really nice to be here," Heiskanen said. "I've always been dreaming of playing in the NHL. Now, it can be possible."

 

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Heiskanen, who turned 19 last month, has worked hard over the summer to prepare for this season as he makes the jump to North America and the NHL. Heiskanen believes he is ready. The body of evidence regarding Heiskanen's play suggests he is ready as well. As a teenager, he was among the top defensemen in Europe last season.

"I saw Miro quite a bit last year. Where do I start?" said Stars player development coordinator Rich Peverley. "He's a great kid, and he's grounded, and he's humble. That's huge. I think the more he feels comfortable here, the more you are going to see him excel. He is an incredible skater. He's got a great touch around the net. He's patient, elusive. He's got all the makings right now."

The Stars believe Heiskanen is ready to take the next step. They also know there is a lot of hoopla surrounding the young Finnish defenseman and they are trying to keep the Heiskanen hype train under control.

Tweet from @StarsInsideEdge: Miro Heiskanen skating today with Jamie Benn and Ben Bishop. pic.twitter.com/mJQNM9aCEy

"I want to calm expectations," said Stars general manager Jim Nill. "I just want Miro to come in and let Miro be Miro. He's a good player, and he's going to be a really good player moving forward. Let's just let him come in and not get too high and not get too low. Just let Miro come in and do his thing."

And they are going to be patient with him as he adjusts to new surroundings and begins play in the best league in the world. 

"Everything is new to him," said Stars coach Jim Montgomery. "We expect him to be an important part of our team. We expect to bring him along slowly, allowing him to play and play the way he needs to play in order to have success because, ultimately, that is going to make the Dallas Stars better. So, we are going to live with mistakes, and he is going to get thrown back out there. We're going to try to make sure he is put in situations to have success early and as he shows the ability to have success we're going to give him more and more."

It's easy to get excited about Heiskanen. He is coming off a busy and stellar 2017-18 season. He won the Pekka Rautakallio Award as the best defenseman in Finland's top league. He tallied 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) in 30 regular season games for HIFK, tying for eighth in goal scoring among league defensemen despite missing half his team's games due to injuries and international play. He also led all league players in ice time, averaging 25:06 per game.

In the playoffs, Heiskanen tied for the league lead in scoring among defensemen with nine points (three goals, six assists) in 14 games as HIFK won the bronze medal. His 26:16 of average ice time per game was tops among all players.

"I think I played really well," Heiskanen said. "I scored some points -- more than the past couple years. That was the biggest difference."

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On the international stage, he played for Finland at the World Junior Championship, Olympics, and World Championship.

"There was a lot of stuff with different teams," Heiskanen said. "It was really good -- a huge season for me."

The World Championship was a good test for Heiskanen since it gave him an opportunity to see how he stacked up against some NHL players. He went head to head with one of the best in Connor McDavid when Finland played Canada and Nill liked how the young defenseman dealt with the challenge after a setback early in the game.  

"Everybody is told how fast McDavid is, but you've got to live it. Well, Miro lived it. McDavid blew right by him," Nill said. "What I liked is that for the rest of the game it didn't happen again. He understood that I have to give him a little more space or I have to take space away. Whatever it was, he understood it and it didn't happen again. That's what he's got in him. He's a quick learner and a quick reader."

Heiskanen chuckled when asked about the early encounter with McDavid.

"He was pretty quick, and there's no one in the Finnish league as fast as he is," Heiskanen said. "But after that I know how fast he is, and it was easier to play against him."

 

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The ability to learn quickly is just one item on Nill's list of Heiskanen's positive attributes.

"He's got elite hockey sense. He's one of those guys that slows the game down. He can slow the game down, he can speed the game up," Nill said.

"He makes the right pass 99 percent of the time. He lets the puck do the work. When he goes into battles somehow he is the guy that comes out with the puck. There are four guys going into a scrum, and there's always one guy coming out with it and he is one of those types of guys."

Montgomery has been doing his research on Heiskanen, searching YouTube and other resources on the internet for video clips. The Dallas coach likes what he has found.

"Love his brain and love his feet," Montgomery said. "He just makes great decisions. Whoever gets the puck from him, whether it is in the defensive zone on a breakout or in the offensive zone, that person has time to make a significant play. Everything he does builds towards success and builds toward momentum for your team.

"The second thing is his feet. He can take away time and space, and his angles and his gaps defensively shut down rushes before they can amount to anything, which creates turnovers early and ultimately leads to the best kind of offense."

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Montgomery said he has given some thought about defense partners for Heiskanen, who is a left-handed shot.

"We would like him to be with a veteran player like a (Stephen) Johns, someone that has been in the league, or a (Marc) Methot," Montgomery said. "Also, as he gains confidence and so does (Julius) Honka maybe they become a pair that can play together. That's something maybe later in the year."

When the Stars brought defenseman John Klingberg to North America from Sweden in 2014, Klingberg spent the first month of the season in the AHL before finally making the full-time jump to the NHL.

Nill said that is a possibility with Heiskanen, but Heiskanen's body of work indicates he is ready.  

"From what we've seen, his play in the Olympics and being one of the top defensemen in Europe, playing in the World Championship, he's shown he can play at this level," Nill said. "He's a different player than John, a little more balanced on the defensive side, so there may not be as many hiccups there.

"We'll wait and see how it goes."

 

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As for Heiskanen, he is all set to go and ready for any challenges. He knows there will be an adjustment to the North American game and the smaller rink, but he is confident he can adapt.

"The game is faster here, but I don't think about it too much," he said. "I just try to play my own game, and I think it is going to be okay."

He knows there will be expectations. And there will be comparisons as he and Rasmus Dahlin, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 Draft, come into the league as two highly touted defense prospects. No real worries there.

"I am okay with that," Heiskanen said. "I don't think about it too much. I am just going to do my own thing and play my own game."

And he believes that game is ready to make the leap to the NHL.

"I think so," he said. "I had a really good summer. I think I am ready."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mark Stepneski has covered the Stars for DallasStars.com since 2012. Follow him on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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