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Despite spotlight, Heiskanen showing just how high his ceiling can be

Sure, the second-year defenseman has made a few more mistakes, but his gains offensively are helping the Stars win

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

DENVER -- Miro Heiskanen is making a few more mistakes this season.

That's to be expected with the 20-year-old playing 1:21 more a game than he did his rookie season and getting much more attention from the opposition. He's also doing a lot more offensively and helping his team win more.

And that's also to be expected.

It's all part of the maturing of Heiskanen, who was taken third overall in the 2017 entry draft, and has been receiving rave reviews since he joined the NHL last season.

"The more he plays, the more confidence he gets, the more experience he gains," said Stars interim coach Rick Bowness. "He has such natural instincts for the game. He's a treat to watch play, he's a treat to coach. Two things about this kid: He knows how good he is, and he's very, very humble. If the game is on the line, he wants to be on the ice. He wants the pressure, because he knows how good he is without talking about it.

Video: DAL@WPG: Heiskanen tallies after outstanding effort

"He's a special player, special person."

Heiskanen has been getting a little bit more of the spotlight lately with John Klingberg out of the lineup for four games with a lower-body injury, Heiskanen has logged a bigger share of minutes. On Saturday in San Jose, he played 26:05, had an assist and two shots on goal.

Last season, Heiskanen averaged 23:07 in time on ice. This year, he's at 24:28. Last season, he tallied 33 points in 82 games (.40 points per game). This year, he has 23 points in 45 games (.51 points per game). Last season, he was minus-14. This year, he's plus-9.

 

[RELATED: Best defenseman in the world? Heiskanen working toward making dream a reality]

 

Those are gains that have been important for the Stars, and it's not just in the statistics. Heiskanen now has to shut down bigger, better players in front of the net or along the boards. Those are hard lessons that he's gobbling up.

"He's probably more competitive this season in terms of 1-on-1 battles, just understanding the strength and the size of the players he's up against, because he's always up against the best players on the other team," Bowness said. "He's learning how to compete in his way. He's not the biggest guy in the world, but he's smart and he's quick, and he's got a good stick, so he's figuring out how to battle those guys."

Video: DAL@SJS: Heiskanen discusses Stars' efforts in loss

One of the things Heiskanen has been doing recently is using his offensive skill to win defensive battles. On one shift recently, he won a battle for the puck behind the net, banked the puck off the boards, and stepped around an opponent to retrieve it. Another opponent stepped up to great him, and he banked the puck off the boards against that player, retrieved the puck and skated it out of the defensive zone.

He has a knack for tipping pucks to break up plays or simply swiping his stick at an opponent on the rush and knocking the puck away, so his skating and stick work have been fantastic. Offensively, he continues to expand his game by taking chances. He's losing the puck more, but he's also making more plays.

 

[RELATED: Stars reaping rewards of patience with young talent this season]

 

"He's very creative and he's very confident, so he's going to try anything. Now, sometimes that doesn't work, but you learn and you grow from that," Bowness said. "He'll recover from everything. He's getting a lot more attention this year, that's an adjustment for him, but when he's skating, he's just going to skate himself out of trouble. He's a second-year guy, so you're still figuring out a lot of this league, what you can and cannot do, and what you can get away with and what you can't.

"There's two teams out there, and they know, they're pre-scouting Miro, and they're making life a little harder for him, and we see that. He's smart, fast, quick enough; he'll overcome it."

Heiskanen is soft-spoken when asked if much has changed. He said he simply plays his game and takes it one shift at a time. While language could be a barrier in explaining for the native of Espoo, Finland, it also could be that he simply doesn't overanalyze his job.


"I think I just felt very good tonight," he said of the heavy minutes Saturday. "I was just moving my legs and tried to make defense play. I still need to find a way to get a little better still."

Bowness said he believes the sky is the limit with Heiskanen.

"Miro has his own identity. This kid is 20 years old and has Norris Trophy written all over him," Bowness said. "He's humble and works hard. He knows he's good without talking about it, lets his play do the talking for him. He's an exceptional young man, and he's an exceptional talent. You kind of let those guys go; don't get in their way, let them play and they'll create their own identity.

Klingberg could return Tuesday at Colorado. Stephen Johns had a solid first game in his conditioning stint in the AHL Saturday. Both could mean that Heiskanen's minutes could be reduced. Or, it could mean that Heiskanen will have the ability to do even more.

That's the intrigue of having a player like Miro Heiskanen.

Don't miss your chance to see the Stars take on the Buffalo Sabres when they return home to American Airlines Center on Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7:30 p.m. Get your tickets now!

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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