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Old soul: Heiskanen displaying maturity beyond his years

The 19-year-old rookie has learned and adjusted to the league quickly: 'A lot of these things you can't teach'

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

When Stars GM Jim Nill refused to include Miro Heiskanen's name in potential trade talks last summer, many people said it was a smart decision that would pay off in the long-term.

Right now, 15 games into the season, it's looking pretty smart already.

The rookie defenseman is third on the team in time on ice at 22:08 -- and in more recent games, he has played as many as 27 minutes. It's a testament to just how quickly the 19-year-old has learned to adjust to NHL play, because time on ice tells you just how much a coach trusts a player.

"His stickwork is flawless … and his reads," said Stars head coach Jim Montgomery. "It's amazing to say a 19-year-old covers up other people's mistakes, but he's doing a lot of that out there. His hockey sense is off the charts."

Heiskanen was taken with the third overall pick in the 2017 entry draft, so he has that pedigree already. He was named the outstanding defenseman in the Finnish Elite League last season, despite playing in just 30 games. His league time was limited because he played for Finland in both the World Juniors and the Olympics, so he has that pedigree.

Let's just say his ability is not a secret in Finland.

Video: DAL@MTL: Heiskanen beats Price up high

The scouting report on Heiskanen is that he's a fantastic skater with great vision and anticipation. Those skills have been evident so far, but what has been a little surprising is the fact he is very deft at using his stick to defend and move the puck in the defensive zone.

When a player is attacking Heiskanen's side of the ice, he typically will push the skater to the outside and then knock the puck away with a one-handed swipe. In battles along the boards, he will chip the puck or deflect it not into an area of harm, but to a place of safety. He has on several occasions punched a puck out of the air while making a keep at the blueline, and sent it right to the stick of a teammate.

"It's a skill, and he has elite hockey skills," said Nill as he talked about several examples of Heiskanen's knack for doing the right thing. "It's who he is. A lot of these things you can't teach."

Even Heiskanen has trouble explaining how he sees the game. While he's still learning English, he understands the language and the questions of "how do you do what you do?" but he often can't put into words what he sees or why he sees it.

"A couple of coaches when I was young, they helped me with that. I think you have to do a lot of moves with your stick in your game, and so you just practice it over and over because you have to use it over and over," said Heiskanen, whose favorite player growing up was Pavel Datsyuk.

"Watching people and coaches, that helped me, and I think sometimes it's just how I play. It's just my game."

Video: Heiskanen receives Stars cowboy hat for first goal

Montgomery confirms that Heiskanen sees things others don't.

"I think it's 99 percent instinct," the coach said. "He looks at the film and I think he gets it right away. I don't think he needs to see the end of the clip."

Teammate John Klingberg has many of the same skills and said that smaller defensemen have to learn slick defensive stickwork to survive. Klingberg is listed at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, while Heiskanen is listed at 6-1, 185.

"Because we're small, I think we have to have a good stick," Klingberg said. "When you can't hit, you have to use your stick and position to defend, so you learn to rely on that pretty early."

And you also realize that getting the puck out of the defensive zone is half the battle in keeping the goals against down, so you learn tricks in flipping or chipping the puck to safe areas.

"It's everything," Klingberg said. "You have to be able to move the puck where you want it to go, you have to be able to move it to your teammates. A few feet here and there can make all the difference, so you have to learn to be able to do that."

Video: ANA@DAL: Heiskanen buries his first career goal

And Heiskanen still is learning. He's minus-2 on the season and minus-52 in SAT (shot attempt differential at even strength), but that's part of being on the ice a lot for a team that is being outshot a lot. Still, the predictions that he will be much better long-term are still very true.

"He knows he can use his stick to his advantage, but he's also an elite skater, and that means he's always in position to use his stick. I think that's a really important part of his game," Nill said.

"When you watch him, he works at it and he practices hard, and I think he's only going to get better."

Klingberg said he sees the improvement every game and isn't surprised anymore by what Heiskanen can do.

"How many times are we going to say he doesn't look like he's 19?" Klingberg said. "It is what it is -- he is a mature player."

And that's a pretty good starting place for his NHL career.

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

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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