Henri Nikkanen is the kind of player who fills the dreams of coaches everywhere: a big, two-way centre.
His 200-foot game was the main attribute that attracted the Winnipeg ICE to him in the 2020 CHL Import Draft. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Finn had a great 2019-20 season with the Jukurit U20 squad in the U20 SM-Sarja league. He scored at a point-per-game pace in both the regular season and playoffs and through 12 games of international junior hockey. He also spent time with the Jukurit Liiga squad, though he scored at a considerably slower pace.
The ICE had a lot of success with their import selection from last year’s draft, Michael Teply. The Chicago Blackhawks prospect played a key role in a successful inaugural season for the Winnipeg ICE. The ICE is no doubt looking to go two-for-two with import players.
“[Nikkanen’s] a player we expect to be an impact player,” said Jake Heisinger, Winnipeg ICE Assistant General Manager.
The ICE isn’t the only Winnipeg hockey club hoping for Nikkanen to impact their team in a big way. The Winnipeg Jets selected him with their fourth-round pick in 2019 for the same reasons the Winnipeg ICE picked the Jukurit centre, while also citing his strength and skill up the ice.
“Size, skating, and [his] being a centre were all things we looked for,” Craig Heisinger said.
It’s currently unconfirmed if Henri Nikkanen will come over to Winnipeg to play in the WHL. If he does, he would be in an interesting scenario rarely, if ever, seen.
Henri Nikkanen could be an NHL prospect developing in his potential future NHL city.
Most times, Craig Heisinger has to travel hundreds or thousands of kilometers to watch Jets prospects and track their development. Now, if he wanted to watch Nikkanen playing alongside guys like Owen Pederson and Connor McClennon, he’d only need to drive down Chancellor Matheson Road. The Jets could buy Winnipeg ICE season tickets just to watch Nikkanen grow.
“It’s certainly an appealing situation, there’s no doubt about that,” said Heisinger.
The Jets assistant GM believes only good things can come from Henri Nikkanen playing in Winnipeg. Learning the North American ice is a common concern heard about prospects coming from Europe, along with adapting to the different lifestyle on this side of the Atlantic.
“If you’re going to play in North America, I think you should develop in North America,” Craig Heisinger said.
It’s almost fitting in a year as weird as 2020 that a chance like this has presented itself to the ICE and Jets.
The Winnipeg ICE was well aware of Nikkanen’s status as a Jets prospect, something they saw as an opportunity to help bring Nikkanen overseas.
“We felt it could be appealing to him,” said Jake Heisinger.
The Biggest Benefit
Both clubs made sure to note that the actual player development of Henri Nikkanen would be handled by the Winnipeg ICE for as long as he would remain with them. The Jets would merely be able to observe his progress more often and more closely than they could otherwise. However, that’s not the biggest benefit the Jets management staff is hoping could come from Nikkanen donning an ICE jersey.
No matter where a prospect grows, NHL teams get to know the player and his skills. They’ll see what the player can become. However, a player’s on-ice performance isn’t everything.
“It’s not hard to know the player; it’s harder to get to know the person,” said Craig Heisinger.
Hockey teams don’t just want to develop great players — they want to develop great teammates and people, too. Having Henri Nikkanen in Winnipeg would allow the Jets to get to know him on a deeply personal level, which could one day help smooth his transition into the Jets dressing room. The team could help him adapt to Winnipeg, perhaps even have him meet with Finnish players on the Jets, such as Patrik Laine, to help Nikkanen adapt.
However, all this depends on if Nikkanen wants to leave his family and Finland behind in uncertain times like these. The decision will ultimately be his to make.
Both the Winnipeg ICE and the Winnipeg Jets hope to see him at the Max Bell Centre this winter.