Florida Panthers: Can Aleksi Heponiemi Crack the Roster in 2019?

Steadily emerging as a talented playmaker, prospect Aleksi Heponiemi looks to crack the NHL roster for the first time this season.

Heponiemi, the team’s second-round draft pick back in 2017, signed a three-year, entry-level contract this offseason, keeping the young Finn around in South Florida. The entry-level contract means that Heponiemi can be promoted to the Florida Panthers.

Heponiemi was drafted for his elite playmaking skills that he showed with the Swift Current Broncos in Canada’s WHL. Moving over from Finland, where the center scored 76 points across 31 games, Heponiemi dominated the WHL.

In a combined 169 games for the Broncos (including playoffs), Heponiemi posted 242 points, averaging 1.43 points per game.

179 of his points were assists, showing his creativity and willingness to set up his teammates. He also took just 25 penalties during this time frame, too.

Despite his dominance in North American Hockey thus far, Heponiemi decided not to start in the AHL. Instead, he went back home to Finland to play for Oulun Kärpät, a dominant side in Liiga, Finland’s professional hockey league.

Heponiemi was exactly what Kärpät needed to help them secure their first championship in three seasons. Aleksi placed joint top on the team in assists and second on the team in total points, with a total 46 points (16G & 30A) across 50 games for the club.

His emergence on the global stage came recently at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championships. Heponiemi was yet again the star of a championship team, finishing tied for first in points with nine. Interestingly, he was tied with fellow Panthers prospect Grigori Denisenko.

Heponiemi’s 3 goals, 6 assists, and +7 rating across a mere 7 games led Finland to their second gold medal in the competition since 2016.

If you need any reference for how impressive that is, Finland’s 2016 roster contained stars such as Sebastian Aho and Patrik Laine, so Heponiemi’s performance should not be underlooked.

More importantly, this led Heponiemi to an entry-level extension with the Panthers. Dale Tallon was ecstatic to announce the contract, with these words on Heponiemi:

“[Heponiemi] is an immensely skilled and dynamic player with excellent vision and hockey IQ. Aleksi has been an elite player at every level and a leader on winning teams… and believe he will be an important part of our organization’s success for years to come.”

With that, what should come next for Heponiemi? He clearly has the pedigree of a player who could emerge as a young star in the Florida Panthers’ organization, but with that also should come patience.

Heponiemi is still just 20-years-old, with plenty of room to grow. With a lack of NHL experience, it’s hard to see Heponiemi cracking the roster in the opening stages of the season. It’s likely that he may take the same path as Henrik Borgström did before him.

Borgström began his 2018-19 campaign at the AHL level, where he dominated Springfield with 22 points in 24 games at just 21-years-old, earning a call-up to the team slightly past the halfway point in the season.

If Heponiemi can repeat this kind of young dominance as his fellow Finnish center for the Thunderbirds this season, there may be a chance he cracks the roster.

He may be slightly behind Owen Tippett and Juho Lammikko for a spot on the Panthers’ roster, but he may have the highest ceiling out of any of them. He has the potential to be a second-line player on this Panthers squad, but he can’t be rushed.

If Heponiemi can make the NHL level, it shouldn’t be for good reason. Ideally, the plan is for him to have a solid developmental season with Springfield and to develop as a possible third liner starting in 2020-21.

This doesn’t rule out his chances at the NHL level as injuries and disappointing seasons could occur at any time.

For Aleksi Heponiemi, it’s a process of next man up if he hopes to make the NHL. He needs to outperform the rest of the Panthers’ farm at Springfield to have any chance at playing for the Panthers this season.