Aleksi Heponiemi had been earning the Florida Panthers a lot of frequent flyer miles over the past few weeks.
With Covid outbreaks and the new addition of the taxi squad, Heponiemi had been back and forth from South Florida and the team’s AHL affiliate in Charlotte four times this season.
Despite the many trips back and forth, he only skated in two games during the 2021-22 season prior to his most recent opportunity.
“I think it’s good to be around here whether you are in the lineup or not,” Heponiemi said. “It’s good to be able to just practice. Of course, you always want to play, but I’m ready whenever I’m in.”
The Panthers had as many as four forwards out of the lineup during their recent road trip and asked Heponiemi to pinch in.
Needless to say, Florida interim coach Andrew Brunette was impressed with what he saw from the 23-year-old forward after he drew into the lineup during Saturday’s game in Raleigh.
“I really love the way he has developed as a player,” Brunette said. “I’ve seen him in junior so I knew his hockey IQ and offensive ability, but he’s a sponge for the game detail-wise.”
Even with two forwards coming off of the Covid list and Sam Bennett returning from his suspension, Heponiemi remains in the lineup for Tuesday’s game in Vancouver.
“We watched him grow,” Brunette said. “I was excited that he came in and played the way he did and he earned the opportunity to show it again tonight.”
With Patric Hornqvist on the Covid list, Heponiemi slotted in on the fourth line alongside Ryan Lomberg and Eetu Luostarinen, a line that has provided a lot of energy to the Panthers this season.
He, like the ‘sponge’ comparison Brunette made of him, soaked up that energy that his linemates provided and he fit right in.
“It just feels super easy to come in that line,” Heponiemi said. “Whether it’s Luostarinen and Hornqvist or Luostarinen and Lomberg, they all work really hard and they’re smart guys and it just feels super natural being with them.”
With 12 NHL games under his belt, the 5-10, 155-pound forward is looking to continue to develop his game to a full-time NHL level.
“I’m just trying to make my game more accessible for the NHL,” Heponiemi said. “You have to make quick decisions and play fast games all the time and that’s been a big thing for me.”
Brunette has seen that growth in him and could give Heponiemi even more opportunities to play this season.
“I’ve always appreciated his IQ, his sense of the game, and I think he’s getting more comfortable from my first year here,” Brunette said.
“He understands the information, he applies it to the best of his abilities, and he’s really a pleasure to coach and we can see him more and more in the lineup here. He’s a good little player.”
Morning Skate Updates
- After Sam Reinhart returned from Covid protocol yesterday, Mason Marchment skated for the first time since being added to the Covid protocol list. Reinhart will slot in on the top line next to Sasha Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe while Marchment remains out of the lineup.
- Sergei Bobrovsky will start in goal for the Panthers in Tuesday’s game while Jonas Johansson will back him up. Spencer Knight remains on the Covid list.
- Olli Juolevi will enter the lineup to play his former Vancouver Canucks while Lucas Carlsson will be a healthy scratch.
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
VANCOUVER CANUCKS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- NHL Betting Odds from FanDuel: Florida favored (PL -1.5 +116) — (ML -230) — U/O 6.5
- Tickets: CLICK HERE
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida
- Radio: WAXY 790-AM, SiriusXM
- Last season: Did not play
- All-time regular season series: Vancouver leads 18-10-3, 6 ties