Stars rookie Miro Heiskanen living up to Texas-sized expectations

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Miro Heiskanen admittedly didn't know much about Texas before relocating there from Finland this summer. He knew of the Dallas Stars, even before they drafted him third overall in 2017, because his countryman Jere Lehtinen played 14 years with the team and won the Stanley Cup. He knew about the barbecue, which he has now tasted and says is at least as good as what he gets back in Espoo. And he was acutely aware of the climate.

"I knew it was a really, really hot place. So hot. It's a lot different than Finland. But I like hot weather. It's not so bad," Heiskanen told ESPN this week.

The heat hits in different ways. Sometimes, it's the Texas sun singeing every surface in its panorama during the summer. Sometimes it's the media declaring that a 19-year-old rookie is the thing that will make or break an NHL team's season, which is a take hotter than Dallas in mid-July.

"The Dallas Stars' season comes down to a teenager who has never played in the NHL," was the headline on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Heiskanen has seen it, but he hasn't internalized that level of pressure.

"I don't think too much about what everyone else is saying. I just try to do my own thing," he said.

What are people saying about Heiskanen? A lot. Through 30 games, the rookie defenseman has 15 points and is skating 23 minutes per game, highest among first-year players and third-highest on the Stars. Skating with fellow Finnish defenseman Esa Lindell, 24, Heiskanen has been a remarkably poised, remarkably unfazed freshman. Buffalo Sabres blueliner Rasmus Dahlin might have the renown as the first overall pick in the 2018 draft, but Heiskanen could end up with the more impressive rookie campaign -- and one that has gotten him noticed around the league.

"He's 19 years old. That's what blows me away," TSN Analyst Craig Button said. "You know what's interesting? The term 'it translates to the NHL.' What translates for him? His unbelievable hockey sense translates. He understands the game at a different level. It's like he's working on his Ph.D."

Daryl Reaugh, the Stars' analyst on TV and radio, uses the word "cerebral" to describe it.

"Miro is so cerebral when reading when to pressure a puck carrier, when to join an attack or when to stay patient, and he's extremely poised with the puck, especially for 19," he said. "He plays with a seemingly effortless celerity and has a sizzling wrist shot that he's not shy to deploy."

Despite that acumen, Heiskanen's ice time was a surprise even to him in his first NHL season. Since 2006, only six players have averaged 23 minutes per game or more. Some of the names on that list: Drew Doughty, Tyler Myers and Duncan Keith.

"No, it wasn't my first thought," Heiskanen said. "But there were injuries, and my game was going well. I expected to play this season, but no, I didn't expect this many minutes every night."

That said, he played big minutes for HIFK in the Finnish pro league last season. "Like, 25 minutes a night. It's really good to play over there, to play against men. It was good preparation for me," he said.

But there are some things one can't prepare for when one makes the leap to the NHL. He had a taste of that at the IIHF world championships last spring in Denmark -- "It means a lot, every time they ask me to play for Finland," he said -- but it really sunk in the first times he played against the likes of Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid.

"Oh, the players are better here, so of course everything is different here. Every person here can play. Really good moves. Really fast. Fast and strong players," he said. "The players are smarter here. They think faster because it's a faster game on a smaller rink, too."

Heiskanen has handled the uptick in competition, though there's room for improvement. His possession metrics are in the negative at the moment, and his goals for percentage sits at 48.9 percent at 5-on-5. Some of this is a function of how the Stars have played under first-year coach Jim Montgomery, and some of it is the learning curve. But Montgomery has seemed comfortable in a trial by fire: Heiskanen plays in every situation, including late when the game is on the line.

"He helps me. Gives me little tips. Shows me video. I like him a lot," Heiskanen said of Montgomery. "They want me to get a little bit stronger. That's the thing we're working on."

Heiskanen's play might not make or break the Dallas Stars' season, but his development is going to be critical to their next decade. The fact that GM Jim Nill wouldn't entertain the idea of giving up Heiskanen in a package for Erik Karlsson during that summer trade derby speaks volumes: Why look elsewhere for a franchise defenseman when you have one in-house?

"I'm really careful in this regard," Button said, "but he has a style and comportment that Nicklas Lidstrom had. He takes you off the puck. You don't even realize you don't have it anymore. He's like a surgeon where you don't even feel the cut of the scalpel. There's never going to be another Nicklas Lidstrom. But he's Lidstrom-esque."

Talk about Texas-sized expectations.