NEW YORK — All eyes in the world’s most famous arena will be fixated on the $81.5 million man Artemi Panarin and Calder Trophy hopeful Kaapo Kakko as they make their Rangers debuts on Thursday night.
But it’s Kakko’s Finnish junior teammate and fellow 18-year-old rookie who will capture the attention of fans back in Winnipeg.
That would be Ville Heinola, the Jets’ first-round selection (20th overall) in June, the pick Winnipeg got back from these Rangers in the Jacob Trouba trade.
Heinola was the surprise of the Jets’ training camp. With questions looming about the status of Dustin Byfuglien, and the loss of blueliners Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot in the off-season, Heinola won a spot in the opening-night lineup – practically out of nowhere.
“Many people weren’t expecting as much as he’s proved,” forward Nikolaj Ehlers said. “He came in and had an unbelievable camp.”
Livestream Jets vs Rangers tonight with TSN Direct – the exclusive streaming service from TSN. Subscribe Now >
*NHL Regional Restrictions Apply
One year ago, Heinola was playing in Finland’s junior league. On Thursday night, he will be skating on the Jets’ second pair at Madison Square Garden.
“A pleasant surprise,” coach Paul Maurice said. “We thought highly of him as a player. But to do that at 18, that’s impressive.”
In typical understated Finnish fashion, Heinola kept his focus on the game Thursday morning. “It’s so exciting,” was just about all he could muster as he taped his sticks in preparation for the big night.
But what is Heinola really feeling?
“You’re terrified. You’re anxious. You’re scared. You’re excited,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said, recalling his first NHL game on Oct. 9, 2008, for the Bruins. “Pretty much every emotion.”
Freshly signed countryman Patrik Laine is helping Heinola keep those emotions in check.
Laine made headlines by purchasing a Lamborghini SUV in Finland after signing his new $13.5 million deal last Friday, but his first priority when returning to Winnipeg – before even taking the ice for practice with the Jets – was to host Heinola at his house on Sunday night for dinner.
“I didn’t know him at all,” Laine said. “Never saw him play.”
Heinola said he had to pinch himself. There is no bigger star in Finland than Laine.
“When I was a bit younger, I looked at him like, ‘Whoa, he’s this crazy guy. He shoots the puck so hard,’” Heinola said. “But now it’s different. He’s helped a lot.”
Laine’s father, Harri, cooked traditional Finnish food – the first Finnish meal Heinola had in a month – and that helped make him feel more at home in Canada.
Laine invited Heinola to room with him on the road to start the season.
“Every small thing, he’s helped me,” Heinola said. “I follow what he does, where to go, and he makes me feel more comfortable.”
For as impressive as Heinola has been, the funny thing about his game is that there isn’t one aspect that is overly impressive. He is balanced and well-rounded.
“He’s not big. He’s not fast. He doesn’t have a booming shot,” veteran Mark Letestu said. “He just hasn’t been overwhelmed by anything.”
Heinola wasn’t overwhelmed when he was nearly put through the boards on a check by Adam Lowry on the first drill of training camp, a hit that sent gasps through Bell MTS Place. He hasn’t been overwhelmed in preseason games.
“That would be the thing that sticks out,” Maurice said. “The other thing would be his learning curve. He’s picked up on the systems really, really quickly. Those kinds of adjustments and you can see them in his game, are really, really quick and I didn’t expect that.”
“He’s got the right mental makeup for the game,” Wheeler said. “He’s poised for a young player. He’s got great hockey IQ. He’s not an imposing player, but he gets on loose pucks, and he can take the puck away from anyone in camp.”
As Maurice says: You don’t have to skate fast if you’re never in the wrong position.
That is Heinola in a nutshell, now in a position to make a jump almost no one saw coming.
“He just needs to blend in and be himself,” Wheeler said. “We’ll make good memories for him tonight.”
Heinola has provided a team with sagging expectations and no shortage of distractions a shot in the arm to start the regular season.
“He’s helped push that stuff to the background even further,” Letestu said. “He is something positive to focus on instead of negative.”
Now it’s just time to play.
“He’s a relaxed guy and he can really play some good hockey. He’s got to enjoy it,” Laine said. “I told him you’re only going to play your first game once, so there’s no better place to play your first game than here tonight.”
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli