We continue our list with one of the more controversial U25 Panthers - a 2017 draft pick that turned heads in the WHL this past season, and hopes to continue to do so in Finland in 2018-19.
#12: Aleksi Heponiemi
Team: Kärpät (Liiga)
Drafted in 2017, 2nd Round (40th Overall)
Early in the second round of the 2017 NHL Draft, the Florida Panthers selected a speedy, diminutive Finnish center playing out of the WHL named Aleksi Heponiemi. Coming off an 86-point season (28G/58A) for the Swift Current Broncos in 72 games, there was no questioning Heponiemi’s skill. However, at 5’10” and 141 lbs, there were understandable concerns around his size. Would he be able to effectively translate his skilled game against faster, stronger players? Could he handle a full 82-game NHL schedule and the grind that come with playing in a league vs. men? Undoubtedly possessing first-round talent, the Panthers decided to take a leap with Heponiemi and hope that the NHL’s recent trend of success with smaller, skilled players would continue.
Well, to say that things went pretty well for Aleksi in his second WHL season with the Broncos would be an understatement. Utilizing his high-end foot speed and ability to create space from opposing players, Heponiemi put up an absolutely gaudy 118-point season (28G/90A) in just 57 games for a Swift Current team that won the WHL Championship (in large part to his performance). He ranked 3rd in the league in points, falling just behind two overagers, but blew everyone in the league out of the water with his point per game pace (2.07), and led the league with his 90 assists. To cap it all off, he took home the CHL Sportsman of the Year Award, a prize given to the most sportsmanlike player in the CHL. Aleksi racked up just 28 PIMs in his torrid campaign across the WHL.
It’s clear Heponiemi has established himself as one of the most prolific playmakers and distributors of the puck in the world for someone at 19 years of age. Now, it’s time for him to prove he can do it in a league of men. In May, Kärpät, of the Finnish Elite League (Liiga), announced that it signed Heponiemi to a two-year contract. These two years will prove pivotal in Heponiemi’s development as he learns to handle the rigors of playing against grown men aged 20-40 rather than kids aged 16-21. Additionally, it gives him time to fill out his modest frame and add muscle, something that can only benefit him as his competition gets stronger and tougher.
The ceiling for Aleksi Heponiemi is very high. He’s easily a top-3 Panthers prospect, some may debate top-2. If he can find a way to produce and have a strong first season with Kärpät, the Panthers could be looking at someone regarded as one of the best hockey players in the world not playing in the NHL; the other side to the coin being that he can’t figure out how to take the next step, and follows a long list of smaller players whose success peaked at the junior level. As of now, the hockey community, along with a lot of Panthers faithful, seems to think Aleksi is the real deal. Once his time in Finland is up, it’s very likely he’ll be on the opening night roster for the 2020-21 season with the expectation of being a solid contributor.
The same questions remain for Heponiemi now that have followed him his entire career: Can he continue to take his game to the next level? Can he really compete and produce at his size? Each year he has answered the bell, let’s see if he can do it again.
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