It wasn’t too long ago diminutive Finnish forward Aleksi Heponiemi was considered one of the Florida Panthers top prospects.
The Panthers selected Heponiemi in the second round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft after he put up 86 points in 72 games for the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos in his first season on North American ice.
Heponiemi followed that up with a 118-point campaign for the Broncos in 2017-18 and the next season, he returned to Finland where he turned pro with Liiga squad Oulun Karpat, where he led all Liiga rookies in points with 46 in 50 games, while finishing second on the team in points and tied for first on the club with 30 assists.
Alarm bells starting chirping a bit during the Liiga playoffs. Karpat advanced all the way to the championship round, but Heponimei saw his offensive output plummet.
He scored three goals in 17 postseason games, with two coming in the same tilt, and disturbingly, had no assists, which is a jarring statistic since his playmaking skills are considered his top attribute. All told, Heponiemi failed to put up a point in 15 of 17 playoff games.
Many chalked up Heponiemi’s playoff performance to that of inexperienced player going through the tighter checking rigors of his first professional postseason.
Based on the strong showing of his first regular season in Finland and his prior eye-popping numbers in Swift Current, the Cats signed Heponiemi to an entry-level contract on May 29, 2019 and he reported to the Springfield Thunderbirds.
Hepoiniemi managed just three goals and 14 points in 49 games as an AHL rookie.
His first point of the season (an assist) came in his third game on October 11.
After going pointless in his next five games, Heponiemi built a season-high, three-game point streak that saw him compile four assists.
After the streak was ended in a November 9 win over Charlotte, Heponiemi set up Owen Tippett’s game-opening goal in Springfield’s next game, a 2-1 victory over Lehigh Valley.
After that helper, Heponiemi would total a paltry two assists over his next nineteen games played before he finally scored his first AHL goal in a 5-2 loss to the Hershey Bears on January 24.
Heponiemi followed up the goal with an assist in his next game against the Hartford Wolf Pack a week later.
On February 21, Heponiemi notched his second goal of the season in a 4-1 win over Hartford and then produced a goal and an assist in a 7-4 loss to Providence a day later.
That was just his second multi-point game of the season with the first being a two assist effort against Wiles-Barre/Scranton on November.
Heponiemi played in six more games after the loss to the P-Bruins, before the AHL season was postponed, and failed to produce another point, though he did register a season-high four shots in a 3-1 loss to the Providence on February 29.
While some adjustment to the AHL was to be expected, Heponiemi’s rookie year was a great disappointment. This is a player who had already had spent two years in North America and had a season of professional experience under his belt.
Heponiemi has the foot speed and vision, but he will need to add weight to his frame and get stronger and work harder to find the space he needs to let his natural playmaking skill shine through. While his overall numbers were ugly, he did show some signs of life later in the season, scoring all three of his goals in his final sixteen games.
He will need to build on that in his second AHL season to get back on track as one of the Panthers prospects to watch out for and reverse his sudden fall from grace.
What does Aleksi Heponiemi’s future hold?
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NHL Top-SIx player?
NHL Bottom-SIx player?
Strictly minor-league fodder