SUNRISE — Aleksi Heponiemi did not pout when the Florida Panthers sent him to the minors following the strongest preseason of his career.
“It certainly does not help you, being negative,” he said.
Based on his showing not only with the Panthers but his start with the AHL Charlotte Checkers, Heponiemi was the first forward called up this season when Florida had him meet them in California last week.
And with Matthew Tkachuk serving the final game of his two-game suspension Wednesday night, Heponiemi should be back in the lineup against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Heponiemi may not be here long — in fact, he may be sent back to Charlotte by the weekend — but he knows every chance he gets to show his worth, he is going to try and do just that.
Whether that is in Florida or in North Carolina.
“There are a lot — a lot — of good players in the AHL so there is not reason for anyone to think that is a bad place for you to play,” Heponiemi said. “I am having fun in Charlotte, it is a great place to play. It is awesome and we’re lucky to be there. You want to be in the NHL, but I am still playing hockey and I am having fun and enjoying it.”
Heponiemi’s solid training camp and preseason usually would have earned him a spot on the Panthers’ opening night roster.
But, due to Florida’s salary cap problem, there was no room on the team for anything extra.
”He’s a bright guy,” coach Paul Maurice said, “he gets it.”
Instead of carrying two extra forwards and a seventh defenseman, the Panthers opened their season with just 18 skaters.
Heponiemi, Michael Del Zotto and Lucas Carlsson were the final cuts with Florida holding its breath that Heponiemi would not get claimed.
As much as the Panthers like him and hope he continues his development, they had to make a tough decision. They rolled the dice he would not get claimed off waivers and would be assigned to Charlotte — and won.
”It is what it is,” Heponiemi said. “I’m just ready to play here whenever I get the chance. Obviously, it wasn’t a great thing but I understand it. This is a business, too. It is tough with the cap space. Whenever I get the call, I just want to play and enjoy it. I had a good camp, I know I can play here. I’m ready whenever and I hope to get a lot of games here.”
Now, he is back.
At least for now.
Not only is Tkachuk returning to the lineup on Saturday, but the Panthers are expected to activate star defenseman Aaron Ekblad from long-term injured reserve.
With that move, the Panthers are pretty much back where they started when the season started when it comes to a lack of salary cap space and having too many players on their roster.
”He had a really, really good camp. An eye-opener,’’ Maurice said. “The stats don’t say what he will offer. He is a very bright man and has a good set of hands. He will make a creative play and is exceptionally smart.
“The question will be durability for Hepo. He can play in the National Hockey League. But how many games can he string together. He had a very good camp and players who are that smart will always be helpful to your team.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
CAROLINA HURRICANES AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 3-0
- All-time regular season series: Carolina leads 69-45-10, 11 ties