Espoo, a city of 290,000 outside Helsinki, has produced greats like three-time Selke Trophy winner Jere Lehtinen, who captured the 1999 Cup with Dallas, and four-time Olympic goalie Noora Raty, who led Finland to an historic Women’s Worlds silver medal on home ice last year.
Heiskanen, 21, could end up being the most famous of them all someday. He had a strong sophomore season with 35 points in 68 games and a +14 plus-minus rating before the pandemic shut the NHL down in March.
However, few foresaw the 185-cm, 86-kg HIFK graduate serving as the two-way catalyst who would lead Dallas past the Calgary Flames in six games, the Colorado Avalanche in seven games, and the Vegas Golden Knights in five games. At least not at this early stage of his career.
“I just love to be there on the ice,” said Heiskanen, who has logged an average ice time of 25:43 for these Western Conference champions. Primarily paired with the towering Jamie Oleksiak, the brother of four-time Olympic swimming medalist Penny Oleksiak, Heiskanen peaked at 35:45 in a 5-4 overtime win over Calgary on 16 August.
Some have compared Heiskanen’s effortless skating to Paul Coffey and Scott Niedermayer. For others, his ability to conserve his energy evokes Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Pronger. His on-ice vision and playmaking complete the package.
It’s extraordinary that he’s emerged as the kingpin on Dallas’s blue line, considering the established presence of assistant captain John Klingberg. In 2017-18, the two-time Swedish world champion tied San Jose’s Brent Burns with 67 points for the second-highest total among NHL defencemen.
Stars coach Rick Bowness said of Heiskanen: “I haven’t coached a kid at this age that can do the things that he has done.”
Having two weapons like Heiskanen and Klingberg is a luxury for Bowness, and it reduces the pressure on Heiskanen to produce offensively, compared to youthful Calder Trophy candidates like Colorado’s Cale Makar and Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes. The Finn settled for just one assist versus Vegas.
Of course, for Heiskanen, winning the playoff scoring title is secondary to winning the Cup. Yet if he surpasses the dynamic Tampa duo of Nikita Kucherov (6+20=26) and Brayden Point (9+16=25), he could become the first D-man to top the points parade since Niedermayer tied teammate Jamie Langenbrunner (18 points apiece) with the 2003 Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils.
“He’s so reliable,” Bowness said. “He’s not a physical guy, but you don’t beat him very often.”
Heiskanen said: “I try to use my stick a lot and play smart defence. That’s part of my game.”
IIHF fans got an early taste of Heiskanen’s superlative potential in 2018. At 18, he became just the eighth player in history to participate in the World Juniors, Olympics, and IIHF World Championship in the same season.
Today, he believes that playing those high-profile tournaments helped to prepare him for the ongoing grind of bubble life – with all due respect to the upscale amenities at the new JW Marriott hotel in Edmonton’s Ice District.
“There’s different situations I’ve been in. It’s probably easier to play here now. Lots of different moments happening in my life, it’s probably helping me out right now.”
The main downside to that 2018 triple was that Finland didn’t bring any medals home, finishing sixth in Buffalo and PyeongChang and fifth in Herning. This year, Heiskanen is a prime contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy, but unless the Stars win the Cup, the most likely defenceman to be named playoff MVP is Tampa’s Victor Hedman.
The Swedish superstar’s nine playoff goals are tied with Boston’s Bobby Orr (1970) and Brad Park (1978) for third-most by a blueliner and surpassed only by Edmonton’s Paul Coffey (1985), the record-holder with 12, and New York’s Brian Leetch (1994), who ranks second with 11.
For Heiskanen, the biggest challenges are yet to come.
Even though the Lightning are a beat-up bunch after playing an NHL-record 185:17 of overtime so far, Heiskanen knows he’ll be a physical target for aggressive Tampa forecheckers like Alex Killorn and Patrick Maroon. Still, he’s adjusted well to the rough stuff after being limited to four points in 13 games in his first playoffs last year.
“We know they’re coming hard, and you’ve got to be ready to take a hit, keep your head up and move a lot. That’s probably the key.”
August and September have provided some wonderful diversions for Finnish Dallas supporters. In addition to Heiskanen’s heroics, they thrilled to Joel Kiviranta’s Game Seven hat trick – including the overtime winner – against Colorado. Esa Lindell and Roope Hintz have also been solid contributors. Now it’s crunch time.
Will the Stars defeat the powerful Lightning for their second Cup in franchise history? Heiskanen was born a month after Brett Hull scored his controversial triple overtime winner on Buffalo’s Dominik Hasek in 1999, so he can’t derive any direct inspiration from that memory. The good news is that this young man from Espoo is old enough to drink Stanley Cup champagne in both the province of Alberta and the state of Texas.