At this point I’ve written a few intros on defensemen who are smaller, and guys who play in European junior leagues. Both are issues that commonly lead to a draft eligible prospect becoming underrated at the draft. On the other hand, one of the best ways to overrate a prospect is if they have an explosive major tournament on the international stage, especially in a year like this where most players in general are not playing as much. Or at least they’re not playing where they can be easily seen.
So we come to the curious case of Aleksi Heimosalmi. He’s not a big defenseman, and he played in a European junior league. But on a big international stage, he had highlight reel play after highlight reel play. He tied for the lead in points by defensemen. He was even named the tournament’s best defenseman, which he probably didn’t deserve and is likely driven by his point totals. But that’s the kind of thing that can give a guy a big boost to his draft stock.
So is Heimosalmi all flash and points? As Leafs fans we well know the frustrations that can bring. Or is there enough there outside of the superficial things that help project him to becoming an impactful defenseman at the NHL level?
THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT
Aleksi Heimosalmi is a 5’11”, 168 lb right shot defenseman out of Finland’s U20 junior league. He has been a very late riser as far as draft rankings go. I remember seeing several public scouting people start talking about him a lot more, and more positively, around the middle of the season. And then the World U18’s came around and he has some major helium thanks to his performance.
By the end of this season, he had a very nice resume leading into the draft. He played in Finland’s U20 junior league, where he finished with 21 points in 35 games. That was good for 6th on his team in points, and first among defensemen. Compared to the whole league, he finished 10th in Finnish U20 in points by defensemen, and first among draft eligibles.
That’s certainly all nice, but European junior leagues don’t get a lot of hype even if you’re breaking records (shout out Veeti Miettinen). What really got his hype-train going was the World U18 tournament, where Heimosalmi tied for lead among defensemen in points at WJC U18s with Corson Ceulemans and Olen Zellweger, with 8 points in 7 games. He was even named best defenseman of the tournament, which he probably wasn’t but he was a surprising name with huge highlights and a lot of points.
Going forward, Heimosalmi has signed a three year deal with Ässät and is due to fight for a spot on their Liiga team next season.
Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:
- Bob McKenzie: Unranked (out of 96 players)
- Will Scouch: 37th
- Scott Wheeler: 62nd
- Elite Prospects: 55th
- Dobber Prospects: 30th
- Smaht Scouting: 49th
THE GOOD: SKATING, TWO-WAY POTENTIAL
Thanks to the wonders that is YouTube, I was able to watch all of Heimosalmi’s games for Finland at the World U18’s. I mostly focused on his games against other top countries, so less the Switzlerands and Germanys and more the Russias and Swedens.
The first thing that stood out the most to me was his skating. He’s very fast, he’s quick with his pivots and cuts, he can switch seamlessly between forward and backward skating, and he just always seems to be moving. He was probably one of the most noticeable skaters on the ice against the very best of his peers.
The second thing I noticed was that he plays very aggressive, most of the time, both on offense and defense. When he makes a pass, he passes it hard. That helps the puck get to where it needs to go with less chance of it being picked off. On the other hand, it wasn’t always easy for his teammates to handle the pass, especially if his aim was a bit off. Most of the time he was able to make it stick-to-stick, so his accuracy was pretty good. But sometimes he’d miss pretty bad and cause a turnover. That’s something I think he would get better at as he gets older.
The other good, but sometimes bad part of his passing was that he would rarely settle for a safe play. He did make the simple passes where warranted, but when things were already more safe for him he would absolutely try for a higher difficulty pass. The benefit of this was that even when it didn’t work 100%, it still sort of works in that it puts pressure on the defending team when the puck is sent into a more dangerous area, and they have to scramble to recover. When Finland was trailing Russia in the semi-finals by two goals, he engineered a late goal to bring it within one goal this way by firing a hard pass through a lane that had two Russians between him and his intended target. The pick deflected off his target’s skate and right to another teammate who had a wide open net to tap it in.
The more concerning part about it was that he will force a more high risk attempt. Even when it’s a safe position to do so, he’ll try it out where there really is no hope of it working. I hope some maturity and coaching will help him refine his instincts to pick his spots a bit better.
From Scott Wheeler at The Athletic, on Heimosalmi’s skating:
Footwork, pivots, inside edges, and standout overall four-way mobility are the name of Heimosalmi’s game. He’s the kind of player who’s more likely to carry than pass if there’s open space available to him. He works the blue line effortlessly, navigating across and off of it to change looks, put opposing teams into scrambles, and open up his options. His ability to make opposing players behave like he wants them to really stands out and allows him to escape pressure, create entries, and then manage play inside the offensive zone. His skating also helps him play a stick-on-puck, disruptive style defensively. Though Heimosalmi’s not the biggest or the most powerful defender, there are increasingly a lot of NHL defencemen that look like him.
With the ability to synchronize his hands and feet in transition is impressive, showing the ability to weave through traffic in the neutral zone, Heimosalmi shows excellent puck-moving ability. His first pass out of his own zone is crisp and on-target, hitting a teammate in stride. He goes for the big stretch pass at times and that has caused a few turnovers here and there but he rarely makes the same mistake twice and understands his own game quite well.
His offensive prowess is what has developed the most this season. As he became more comfortable, he began jumping into the offense a bit more. His reads at the blueline that allowed him to jump into space in the second half of the season are impressive and he rarely mistimed his reads. His puck skill was impressive as he works his way into the slot, presenting himself as a shooting threat while remaining a playmaker at heart.
The same aggressive tendency was mostly true of his defense. His skating helps him be aggressive, and by god he will try to be aggressive. He’ll play tight against his man in the defensive zone, and try and push them around or be more physical even if he isn’t the biggest guy. That worked out for him maybe half the time, against Russian forwards who were bigger and stronger than him. But other times, even against bigger players, he could knock them off balance or push them further away from dangerous areas.
In the neutral zone, his aggression seemed a bit more mixed. Sometimes he would wait a bit too long to close the gap on his man. Sometimes he would be a bit too aggressive and take himself out of position. He would sometimes have good reads and be effective at breaking up or at least pressuring zone entry attempts by the Russians, to his credit. He was much more effective playing the secondary role on transition defense: getting back to recover a dump in, and turn it back up the ice for Finland with his good skating and aggressive passing.
From Josh Tessler at Smaht Scouting, on Heimosalmi’s defensive play:
When mid-cycle and not defending the rush, he tends to exert more pressure starting at the perimeter. Instead of going in for a poke-check when defending mid-cycle, you will see Heimosalmi use his stick deceptively as he will swerve his stick at the puck to manipulate the attacker’s puck movement. More than often, the intention is push the attacker to low danger.
In high danger situations, Heimosalmi deploys strong defensive positioning. He will press and play man-on-man defense in tight to eliminate open targets. While Heimosalmi is far from the biggest player on the ice, his ability to push attackers away from his net is noteworthy.
THE FLAWS: CONSISTENCY, STRENGTH
So Heimosalmi clearly has some high end tools, and his skating has led to more than a few instances of ‘breaking ankles’, as the kids say. But I saw someone else say that they thought while Heimosalmi showed a lot of flash and can make the highlight reels more often than most, he also disappears for stretches. I never really saw him ‘disappear’ at any point, but I would definitely agree that he could be inconsistent.
I touched on pretty much all of that above when talking about his strengths. His aggressive offensive tendencies could work, but not always. And when they don’t work, the failure could be pretty spectacular and frustrating. He was at least usually good about not trying that sort of thing in a situation where a spectacular failure was that likely to wind up in the back of his net, but it would still waste good opportunities. Sometimes going for a flashy play is not just called for, and you just want him to — as Will Scouch likes to say — play the f***ing game and make the simple play when it’s also the best play. Flash for flash’s sake can get you into trouble.
Defensively it was the same. It’s funny that in most scouting profiles I read, they liked Heimosalmi’s transition defense more than in the defensive zone. From the two games I watched, I thought the opposite. I don’t know if he was choosing (or told) to play more careful against Russia and Sweden’s transitions in case he got burned, but he was not that aggressive with gap control from what I saw. He could be, but only sometimes. In the defensive zones I thought he was more effective, but he lacked the physical strength at times to pull off what he was trying to do, and would get pushed around or knocked over instead. He’s not the smallest defenseman at 5’11”, but at 168 lbs he will definitely need to add some muscle and get stronger as he faces older, bigger competition.
I am not as excited about Heimosalmi as a prospect as I am any of the others I have already written about. He is fun and flashy, his skating is spectacular to watch, and he does have some good tendencies and tools that hint at some solid potential as a two-way defenseman. The consistency and strength need to be improved, and aside from his skating I don’t think the rest of his offensive skills are as high end as you would like.
But on the other hand, that potential is exciting. If he can develop any of those other areas into bigger assets (physical defense, consistency with his decision making, passing accuracy), he turn into a very nice defenseman in the NHL. Not a top pairing guy, but a solid puck-mover with solid defensive and play-driving abilities.
During his mid-season rankings, Bob McKenzie did not have Heimosalmi ranked in his top three rounds. He has said that the U18 tournament would change some rankings significantly, and considering that Heimosalmi tied for points by defensemen and won the award for top defender in the tournament, I can see him getting a good jump as high as into the second round. But considering how far up he would have to be bumped, I’m thinking he winds up as a late second and more likely a third round guy.
If the latter is true, he’s someone I wouldn’t mind the Leafs getting if they traded down from 57th to take two players in the third round. I’d probably take Olen Zellweger or Brent Johnson ahead of him, but I wouldn’t say they’re that far apart.