Did John Klingberg possibly hinder Miro Heiskanen’s development?

Dec 1, 2022; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Stars left wing Jason Robertson (21) and defenseman Miro Heiskanen (4) celebrates after Robertson scores his third goal of the game during the third period for a hat trick against the Anaheim Ducks at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 1, 2022; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Stars left wing Jason Robertson (21) and defenseman Miro Heiskanen (4) celebrates after Robertson scores his third goal of the game during the third period for a hat trick against the Anaheim Ducks at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

If I told you we are watching Miro Heiskanen’s fifth NHL season this year, would you believe it? Heiskanen is only 23 years old, but he has played with a variety of defensemen over the course of his career. In witnessing his best offensive start to a season, I was curious why this offense wasn’t there in previous years or if it was there but injury, luck, or other issues affected his numbers.

Dallas Fans have the strong notion that John Klingberg, a notable Power Play merchant, was the reason for the lack of growth in Miro Heiskanen’s offensive numbers, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Today, we are looking at Miro Heiskanen’s career linemates, advanced statistics, and qualitative tactical decisions to find Miro’s offensive ceiling and figure out if he’s had any help over his career to be an elite two-way threat.

First of all, Miro Heiskanen’s stat breakdown is as follows:

  • 21 Games Played
  • 3 Goals (2 Even Strength, 1 Power Play)
  • 16 Assists (6 Even Strength, 9 Power Play, 1 Short-Handed)
  • 19 Points (8 Even Strength, 10 Power Play, 1 Short-Handed)

The opportunity to play ‘Power Play quarterback’ has paid dividends early on for Heiskanen, but also represents half of his basic point totals this year, prompting the discussion of what his true statistical ceiling is and how Power Play opportunities may inflate his numbers.

While there is a rabbit hole I could go down to dissect the impact NHL defensemen have on Power Plays vs. in other situations, we will be exploring other factors for Heiskanen’s offense to provide a more comprehensive justification of his past production.

2022-2023 Dallas Stars Defense 

First of all, as it stands, the most common defensive pairings for the Dallas Stars at 5v5 through the 2022-2023 season seem to be the following:

Heiskanen – Miller (234 mins)

Suter – Lundkvist (193 mins)

Lindell – Hakanpaa (183 mins)

Other notable 5v5 pairs (over 50 mins played):

Suter – Hakanpaa (88 mins)

Suter – Heiskanen (79 mins)

Lindell – Lundkvist (74 mins)

Lindell – Miller (56 mins)

Colin Miller’s free agency signing has given Miro Heiskanen a stable and safe partner, but Miller is not an elite partner that can elevate the gameplay of great NHL defensemen such as elite facilitator Devon Toews who is partnered with offensive dynamo Cale Makar in Colorado or the defensive wizard Jonas Siegenthaler who is partnered with the offense-oriented Dougie Hamilton.

There seems to be an emphasis around the league on building a ‘pairing’ rather than simply having a defenseman plus another defenseman when constructing the roster puzzle. The best teams this season like Colorado and New Jersey have these strong pairs, as mentioned above, and Dallas’ best pair of Heiskanen – Miller cannot compete with that. The underlying numbers also back up this statement extremely well.

Dallas Stars Defense – Corsi For Percentage (CF%)

According to NaturalStatTrick, all of Dallas’ defensive pairings hover close to 50% Corsi For Percentage (CF%), with Heiskanen – Suter at the top of the list at 52.86%. This means that when the Heiskanen – Suter pairing is on the ice, Dallas gets 52.86% of the shot attempts. CF% can be a good measure of talent because the best lines will likely be out-chancing their opponents and boasting positive shot attempt differentials.

What worries me about Dallas’ defense in looking at this data is that no pair stands out higher than 52.86%, with Lindell – Hakanpaa and Suter – Hakanpaa pairings only covering roughly 46% of their on-ice shot attempt shares.

One key in all of this is the fact that Corsi is directly influenced by possession. If you have the puck, the other team cannot accumulate shot attempts, so regardless if Heiskanen and Co. do not provide fantastic offense support, the possession is evident from 5 of 7 pairing combos being at 50% or greater CF%.

For reference, the Toews – Makar and Siegenthaler – Hamilton pairs are running at 54% and 59% Corsi For % respectively with a large ice time sample. These are elite D pairs that any NHL would want on the ice who can control play and win games. Dallas does not seem to have this type of powerful pairing at this point.

With that being said, I wondered if Heiskanen had any great partners throughout his NHL career and if he is potentially being held back by the lack of organizational talent placed beside him. Using NaturalStatTrick’s D pairings tool, the following information shows Heiskanen’s most frequent partners over his 5-year career, shown with the season, minutes, and Corsi For % for reference (minimum 200 minutes played together — if Corsi led the team then it is highlighted). The table is sorted by CF%.

Partner — Season — Minutes — CF%
1. John Klingberg — 2018-2019 (rookie) — 343 mins — 62.14%
2. Ryan Suter — 2021-2022 — 818 mins — 54.13%
3. Stephen Johns — 2019-2020 — 202 mins — 53.08%
4. Jamie Oleksiak — 2019-2020 — 467 mins — 52.86%
5. Colin Miller — 2022-2023 — 234 mins — 52.05%
6. Jamie Oleksiak — 2020-2021 — 833 mins — 51.16%
———————— 50% ————————
7. Esa Lindell — 2021-2022 — 424 mins — 47.77%
8. Esa Lindell — 2018-2019 (rookie) — 208 mins — 46.81%
9. Roman Polak — 2018-2019 (rookie) — 536 mins — 44.32%

Heiskanen was able to lead Dallas’ D core in shot attempts percentages in 4 of his first 5 NHL seasons. This is extremely impressive, considering he was partnered with the adequate-but-not-elite Stephen Johns, 36-year-old Ryan Suter, and Colin Miller in some of those years.

Based on this analysis, the following conclusions can be made:

  1. Esa Lindell: It is clear that a Lindell – Heiskanen pairing, which played so much together over some past seasons, was not a great choice and both players could benefit from playing with other defensemen.
  2. John Klingberg: Heiskanen played one season in heavy minutes with John Klingberg under Jim Montgomery and the pair clearly dominated the competition. The fact that this pair was not tested in future systems was an intentional coaching decision. It is inferred that Dallas coaches were trying to give Heiskanen and Klingberg their own pair for an even spread of talent and the hypothetical “freedom” from each other since both do well with the puck on their stick. However, as the statistics show, they needed to play together or at least be tested for more than 200 minutes one more time to see if the rookie year was a fluke and if the front-loaded D-core was a sustainable approach to Dallas’ hockey successes.
  3. Heiskanen’s Ceiling: There is no one on this list that matches Klingberg’s puck abilities or has elite playmaking or high-level defensive traits that could effectively complement Heiskanen’s game. This has hindered Heiskanen’s overall ability to reach his offensive ceiling throughout his career outside of playing with Klingberg in 2018 or playing with Dallas’ 4 best forwards this season on the Power Play.

Here is what Heiskanen could be:

Heiskanen can be this type of hockey player and a consistent rush threat without sacrificing defensive positioning. Unfortunately, he does not have a player like Devon Toews behind him for every rush chance and therefore seems to resort to responsible and safe plays to avoid being out of position.

He’s evidently needed on defense more often than on offense. Whether this was an explicit instruction from a previous coaching staff or simply his personal hockey habits, Heiskanen is limited to perimeter efforts at even strength in part because of these in-game decisions.

Nevertheless, Heiskanen can provide Dallas forwards with great opportunities to score because of his overall effectiveness in transition and ability to create space, where he can connect with Roope Hintz or other players for high-danger scoring chances, sometimes out of nothing.

We want more of this:

Miro Heiskanen Solution

When looking to solve this issue, Dallas spent 1.8 million on Colin Miller, and the pair have been good so far this year. Did Dallas believe Colin Miller was the cap-compliant answer for Heiskanen? At the very least, Heiskanen can play his natural left side and this will be his year to get Power Play ice time, so it would have been fair to expect greater offensive success than in other years.

However, we see other NHL teams solve these problems with better solutions rather than marginal gains. For example, after losing Dougie Hamilton to New Jersey in free agency, the Carolina Hurricanes went out and acquired Brent Burns at 33% contract retention from the San Jose Sharks for bottom-six forwards Lane Pederson and Steven Lorentz, goalie prospect Eetu Makiniemi and the lowest of 2 Carolina 2023 3rd round picks. Consequently, this season, the Jaccob Slavin – Brent Burns pairing currently ranks 2nd best in the NHL (100 minutes+) with a 64.05% CF%.

How can Dallas do this for Heiskanen? Here are three upgrades via the trade route that can benefit Heiskanen:

  1. Jakob Chychrun (Arizona): strengths of puck skills, shooting, defensive ability, skating is good as well, able to play right-side D well
  2. Chris Tanev (Calgary): one of the most reliable defensemen in the NHL, helped Quinn Hughes become an elite #1 D-man in Vancouver, Calgary has 7 D-men on 1-way contracts with little cap space due to commitments to Nazem Kadri, MacKenzie Weegar, and Jonathan Huberdeau
  3. Brayden McNabb (Vegas): excellent facilitator for Shea Theodore, body contact threat on every defensive opportunity, could become a cap casualty if Vegas runs out of money, but likely unavailable at this time since he is a key piece to Vegas’ core

Unfortunately, Dallas has 7 NHL defensemen in Heiskanen, Miller, Suter, Lindell, Hakanpaa, Lundkvist, and Hanley, and acquiring such a defenseman like the options above seemed to be their goal in acquiring Lundkvist. Time will tell on Lundkvist’s progression as a young high-risk option on defense.

Thomas Harley and other internal options could also prove their worth in future seasons. Because of this, it is likely that the Stars do not trade for any defensemen from an organizational perspective. The Stars management will likely focus on forward upgrades.

Regardless, I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into analyzing Miro Heiskanen’s track record, his D partner history, and some potential additions to elevate the Heiskanen ‘pairing’ to be among the leagues’ best from ‘eye test’, statistical analysis, and NHL reputation perspectives.

Heiskanen alone is one of the top defensemen in the NHL. With an elite and trustworthy upgrade on his right side, I believe he could better demonstrate his offensive capabilities and extend beyond his usual safe habits to grow into a level of two-way dominance that has not been reached so far in his career. The best is yet to come for Miro Heiskanen.