Since being acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks, the Florida Panthers have seemingly mishandled the development of Finnish forward Aleksi Saarela.
The recently turned 23-year-old was previously drafted by the New York Rangers with the 89th overall selection in the third round of the 2015 NHL Entry Level Draft. Since being taken by the Rangers, Saarela has bounced around the NHL, having brief stints with the minor league squads of the Carolina Hurricanes and Chicago Blackhawks prior to landing in Florida.
Saarela has already proven himself as a potent offensive weapon at the American Hockey League level, experiencing dominant AHL campaigns in 2018 and 2019 for the Charlotte Checkers. During the 2017-18 AHL regular season, Saarela recorded an incredibly impressive slash line of 25 goals as well as 18 assists for 43 total points in 69 games played, along with an adequate +4 rating.
The following season was even more impressive for the surging Finn. While participating in 69 games throughout the course of the 2018-19 season, Saarela tallied a sensational line of 30 goals as well as 24 assists for 54 total points, along with a phenomenal +18 rating.
Saarela would make a brief appearance during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Hurricanes but was never truly given the opportunity to succeed at the NHL level with Carolina. Following the 2019 season, Saarela would join the Chicago Blackhawks but never got the chance to compete in the big leagues, either.
Eventually, General Manager Dale Tallon would pounce on the opportunity to scoop up Aleksi Saarela via trade from the Blackhawks. Despite making a move for the services of Saarela, the Cats have done a poor job in terms of handling the young Finn’s overall development.
Until recently, Saarela had spent the majority of the 2020 campaign in AHL with the Springfield Thunderbirds. While participating in 43 games for the T-Birds, Saarela produced a fairly adequate tally of 12 goals as well as 19 assists for 31 total points on an offensively.
Soon enough, the Cats would require the services of Aleksi Saarela. After parting ways with the likes of Vincent Trocheck, Denis Malgin, and Jayce Hawryluk, Saarela finally got the chance of a lifetime at the NHL level which he fully deserved.
Despite playing primarily on the fourth line, the native of Finland performed well for the struggling Cats on both ends of the ice. While appearing in only 9 games, Saarela registered 2 goals and 2 assists for 4 total points while averaging roughly 12 minutes of ice time per game. Last night, in his return to the lineup, Saarela recorded a 2-assist performance, propelling the Panthers to a crucial 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues.
Essentially, the rookie is nowhere near perfect, but he shouldn’t be benched for a multitude of games in a playoff push for the offensively struggling Florida Panthers. Just based on last night’s performance – as well as his others – Saarela should be a lock on the bottom six moving forward, given his steady production and consistent presence.
Ultimately, the Panthers are a much better team with Aleksi Saarela in the lineup, regardless if it’s in a fourth-line role. Saarela provides an impactful presence on the ice, performing an excellent job on both sides of the rink and providing necessary scoring on the bottom six.
Rather than continuing to play the offensively challenged Dominic Toninato, Coach Q should slot Saarela into a permanent role on the team’s bottom-six core for the remainder of the season.
While he certainly won’t carry the Cats to the playoffs, he can undoubtedly play a vital role in their push for a wild-card spot or the third seed in the Atlantic Division during the 2020 campaign.