Ville Heinola is under the microscope. So is Topi Niemela.
It’s partly because these two Finnish World Junior defencemen were drafted by hockey-crazed Canadian NHL markets (Heinola 20th overall by Winnipeg in 2019, Niemela 64th overall by Toronto in 2020). But it's also because the Finnish national team is always looking for game-changing rearguards.
Someday, when hockey historians describe the growing profile of Finnish D-men, they’ll probably use the terms B.H. and A.H.: Before Heiskanen and After Heiskanen.
Miro Heiskanen made sure the whole hockey world knows his name when the Dallas Stars marched to the 2020 Stanley Cup final. The tireless, smooth-skating 21-year-old racked up 26 playoff points – the fourth-highest total for an NHL defenceman after Paul Coffey (37, 1985), Brian Leetch (34, 1994), and Al MacInnis (31, 1989).
However, Heiskanen didn’t have the same impact at his two World Juniors. The Espoo native was limited to one assist in six games with the disastrous 2017 team that replaced head coach Jukka Rautakorpi with Jussi Ahokas mid-tournament and finished ninth in Montreal. And Heiskanen had two assists the following year when Finland came sixth in Buffalo.
At the World Juniors, the most noteworthy Finnish tournament all-star defencemen include Risto Siltanen (1977, 1978), Reijo Ruotsalainen (1980), Teppo Numminen (1988), Kimmo Timonen (1994), Joni Pitkanen (2003), and Rasmus Ristolainen (2014).
There is still another level to reach, both in quality and quantity.
In the 21st century, Finland first gained a reputation as a goalie factory with award-winning netminders like Miikka Kiprusoff, Pekka Rinne, and Tuukka Rask. More recently, the spotlight has shifted to elite forwards like Aleksander Barkov, Mikko Rantanen, and Sebastian Aho.
Now it’s D-man time.
Great NHL defencemen who can also dominate internationally are no longer an exclusive North American specialty. Long gone are the days of 1985 to 1997 when Coffey, Ray Bourque, Chris Chelios and Brian Leetch owned the Norris Trophy.
Beyond Heiskanen, the Finns could use even more multi-dimensional workhorses to rival recent Norris Trophy winners like Sweden’s Victor Hedman and Switzerland’s Roman Josi.
Granted, the Finnish national team is capable of playing incredible defence as a five-man unit with short passes and a quick transition game. Just look at the largely anonymous squad that won Worlds gold under Jukka Jalonen in Bratislava in 2019.
Yet this nation of 5.5 million will have even more international success – including here at the World Juniors – if they once again recalibrate their development model with a focus on turning out more elite blueliners.
Heading into Wednesday’s battle with Slovakia, Heinola leads Finland with an average ice time of 24:20, while Niemela is tops in points (2+2=4).
These two young men are doing their part in the quest for Suomi’s sixth World Junior gold medal. To expect them to rival Heiskanen someday is a big ask.
Still, if Finland is ever to win an Olympic gold medal, it sure wouldn’t hurt to have a blue-and-white answer to Nicklas Lidstrom. (See Turin 2006.)