In a generation of strong Finnish prospects, Ville Heinola is the top defenceman in this year’s draft. He’s established himself as a top defender at a professional level and has played very well at the under-20 and under-18 levels on the world stage.
He had a breakout season in the top division of Finnish hockey, Liiga with Lukko.
Birthplace: Honkajoki, Finland
Weight: 181 lbs.
Team: Lukko (Liiga)
Heinola played his Under-16, Under-18, and under-20 club hockey with the Ässät program, however, being a year younger, he didn’t cross paths with Montreal Canadiens 2018 first-round pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He did play with Jesperi’s brother Kasperi who was the goaltender for those teams.
This year, most of his playing time came with Lukko in the top division. The team finished in seventh place and after winning their first round series in three games, they were swept in the quarterfinal. Heinola played 34 games with two goals and 12 assists. In seven playoff games, he had a goal and three assists.
He also played key roles on both the Finnish Under-20 team at the World Juniors, where they won the gold medal and on the Finnish Under-18 team that lost to the United States in the quarterfinal. Combining the two tournaments he had two goals and four assists in 10 games. He didn’t finish the world junior tournament as his tournament ended as he was the victim of a Maxime Comtois hit.
Heinola, despite being 17 at the World Juniors, was trusted as one of Finland’s top options through the tournament.
He also played nine games at the junior level for Lukko, earning a goal and eight assists proving he deserved to get called up to the senior roster.
The first thing you need to discuss when it comes to Heinola’s play is that even though he is a left-handed shot, he plays the right side. This was common in the footage I saw at the Liiga and U-18 levels. On the Liiga’s website, he’s even listed as a right defenceman.
It’s notable that he was trusted at a men’s professional level on his off-side, and goes to show that he has that versatility as a prospect going forward. It did provide him with some challenges. He didn’t look as confident with the puck on his backhand, and often looked to make safer, rushed plays instead of using his skating ability.
He did get some power play time with Lukko, and played some penalty kill as well. At even strength, he is able to use his mobility to get himself into shooting positions, and he has a quick release that he can use to beat goaltenders. He’s not a dynamic or purely offensive talent, but shows confidence with the puck.
Heinola’s play in Liiga showed how much confidence his coaches had in him. He was third in average time on ice in the regular season and the playoffs among defencemen, with most of his ice time coming in the third period. Remember, this is playing against men on his off-side.
And he fared well. In the regular season he had a Corsi-for percentage of 50.8%, which was right at the team average (Lukko as a team had a Corsi-for of 50.8%). However, most of the players ahead of him had more offensive zone starts. On top of getting a lot of ice time, Heinola was not sheltered, starting only nine shifts more in the offensive zone than the defensive zone.
However, he grew as the season went on and when the team got to the playoffs, Heinola’s game took another step forward. Lukko controlled only 48.3% of shots at five-on-five, but Heinola was at 51.8%, and that was with only 43% of his shifts starting in the offensive zone.
When it comes to Heinola as a prospect, he’s not the fastest skater, but his skating doesn’t hold him back. Lukko often has their defencemen switch sides or skate around looking for options, and Heinola does that well. He’s not the biggest body but his hockey sense is one of his bigger assets. He uses positioning to defend when his size doesn’t allow him to.
He doesn’t have a booming slap shot, but his wrist shot and release is really good. He can use it to put pucks on net and it is capable of beating goaltenders as well. On the power play, he is a good passer using fakes and deception to create openings for himself.
Rankings (not all rankings are final)
Elite Prospects: #19
Future Considerations: #27
Hockey Prospect: #17
The Hockey News: #20
NHL Central Scouting: #4 (European skaters)
Heinola is the best Finnish defenceman in the class, and his 14 points his fourth all-time for a defender under 18 in Liiga. The player just ahead of him is also eligible for the 2019 draft in Mikko Kokkonen. However, f you adjust it for points per game, he moves to past Kokkonen who is seen as a second round prospect.
Both Heinola and Kokkonen put up more points in their draft year in Liiga than Miro Heiskanen, but Heinola won’t be seeing the top three and isn’t seen as a top prospect like the Dallas Stars defenceman.
He will likely be taken in the first round, and could be an option for the teams in the middle of the first round. It will be interesting to see how teams evaluate Heinola, and we know that the Canadiens have a lot of connections to Finland that they can use for an evaluation. Heinola should be in consideration for the pick at #15, even if he plays primarily on the right side.