Ville Heinola wasn’t faced with a make-it-or-break-it night in his fledgling career when he suited up Thursday against the exceedingly dangerous Toronto Maple Leafs.
Not that the 20-year-old Finn committed any ghastly errors worthy of immediate banishment to the sidelines.
Heinola’s second assignment of 2021 with the Winnipeg Jets defensive corps went smoothly. He didn’t flash the dynamic offensive talent that many in the hockey world firmly believe he possesses but didn’t make the highlights for all the wrong reasons, either.
The 2019 first-round pick gets a ‘satisfactory’ on his report card for 17 shifts and 12 minutes, 34 seconds of ice time, replacing Logan Stanley on the third pairing with six-year veteran Dylan DeMelo.
That matches Heinola’s own self-appraisal of the outing.
“I think it was pretty solid for me. I was one month without playing, so it was kind of hard to go in, but I just tried to do those simple things first. Get that good first pass and try to battle hard and I think it was an OK game,” said Heinola, whose last game action was March 14 with the Manitoba Moose, the Jets’ American Hockey League affiliate.
“I think I have to do what are my strengths on the ice. I wanted to use those (Thursday), so I think I have to be aggressive and pinch and try to gap out well. I think that’s a big part of my game, so I really wanted to do those things well.”
The 6-1, 188-pound blue-liner made a handful of well-executed passes to the his forwards, pinched to retain puck possession in the offensive zone and handled himself physically in a couple of corner battles.
He was on the ice for John Tavares’ second-period tally, but there was plenty of blame to go around on the goal, particularly at the feet of Pierre-Luc Dubois who missed his check in front of goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
Prior to the game, head coach Paul Maurice hinted any future work Heinola receives down the stretch to the NHL post-season certainly didn’t hinge on any success, or lack thereof, against the North Division-leading Leafs.
He reiterated that following his squad’s 5-2 triumph over Toronto.
“As I said before, I wasn’t going to assess his game one way or the other. That’s not him on the (Tavares) goal. So get in, get through it. Have enough presence to play your game simply. There’s nothing glaring there, which is really good,” said Maurice. “So, he did what he needed to do. We know he can get through a game. We’ll have opportunities as we go forward here to get him to play more. But it was a good game for him.”
It’s been nearly three months since Heinola made his only appearance with the big club, a 4-1 Jets triumph in Ottawa on Jan. 21. He has four goals and 10 points in 16 contests with the Moose.
Heinola said he could feel the long layoff in his hands.
“The biggest thing is you don’t have that feeling with the puck because you have not played. The game is so much different here than practice. There’s so much more speed and you have to make those quick decisions, so it’s kind of hard to get that feeling with the puck,” he said. “But you know, after the first game I think now it’s easier… you get that feeling and you don’t have to think about what you are doing on the ice.”
Maurice definitely had an agenda for pencilling him into the lineup.
“I’m going to want to see Heinola and (recently acquired blue-liner Jordie) Benn in the next six (games) and get a handle on what they can do against those teams, what our pairs look like, what a match would look like,” said Maurice, in a Zoom chat with reporters a few hours before puck drop.
“We get into the playoffs, we’re going to need them all. The idea is we’ve got Toronto, we’ve got Edmonton, Montreal… we want to see them against these teams, specifically, to give us a better assessment.”
Benn, 33, a veteran of nine seasons split between Dallas, Montreal and Vancouver, was acquired from the Canucks at the trade deadline Monday. He has patrolled both sides during his career, and could partner with just about anyone on Winnipeg’s defensive unit should Maurice decide to swap out either Derek Forbort or Tucker Poolman.
The left-shooting defenceman was to arrive in Winnipeg on Thursday and will skate this weekend, but isn’t expected to play Saturday against the visiting Edmonton Oilers.
Winnipeg then has three straight home dates against Toronto.
Surprisingly slick and unafraid to engage with far heavier bodies, Heinola cracked the Jets roster out training camp in 2019 and played eight games, scoring once and helping set up four others. But the Jets elected to return him to Finland for the rest of the ’19-20 season, although he had a short stint with the Moose first.
“He’s worked hard, he’s worked on his game. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t put him in,” offered Maurice. “If I didn’t think he had committed hard enough or had pushed hard enough, morning skates, practices, workouts after, we monitor all of it. He’s earned it.”
Assistant sports editor
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