CORAL SPRINGS — It was just over a year ago that Aleksi Heponiemi made his NHL debut with the Florida Panthers although it seems so much longer than that.
Heponiemi stepped onto the ice at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Jan. 30, 2021, and got his rookie lap around an empty arena.
It was a big night for Heponiemi — not only did he play in his first NHL game, but he scored his first goal as well.
That goal put him in the Panthers’ record book as the first player to score an overtime goal in his NHL debut.
Heponiemi is also just the fourth in NHL history to accomplish the feat.
Again, that was a long time ago.
Heponiemi has been all over the place since then but came into training camp this season ready to battle for a permanent role with the Panthers.
Now 23, Heponiemi is in his fourth season with the Panthers and is no longer on his entry level contract.
That means if he does not make the Panthers this time around, Florida would have to try and sneak him through waivers to place him in Charlotte.
Heponiemi would rather just start the season with the Panthers and not worry about all that stuff.
”This camp is not that different for me because I am here to work hard and earn a spot,” said Heponiemi, who will play in Florida’s first preseason game today in Nashville at 4 p.m.
“We have a lot of good players fighting with me for a spot so I just have to work hard. They are pushing us to run at at a fast speed and I think that suits my game. I’m just pushing hard. The first preseason game isn’t easy but you want to go out there and show your best out there. I’m going to be ready to play.”
Although Heponiemi got in nine games with the Panthers during that 2021 Covid season, most of that year was spent practicing with the team’s taxi squad.
Last season, Heponiemi spent much of the time in Charlotte as he got some real traction with consistent playing time.
That should help him in trying to snare one of the few spots on this year’s Florida team.
The Panthers are up against the salary cap and do not have many positions open. The ones they do are going to have stiff competition with the likes of future Hall of Famer Eric Staal being one of the suitors for them.
Heponiemi knows this is a tough team to break in with and knows that firsthand.
That seems to be just fine with him.
If he can make it with the Panthers, he rations, he’s doing alright.
”With the players we have here, it is so hard to crack the team,” he said. “You really have to earn a spot here. Nothing is given. It is not easy. If you play good enough you will make this team and if you do not, well, you won’t.
”So you just have to work, work and work and keep moving forward. Being able to play some NHL games certainly helps when it comes to being more comfortable, having some confidence and being around this team helps as well. You really get a feel for these guys.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS PRESEASON
Today: at Nashville, 4 p.m.
Today: at Nashville, 8 p.m.
Thursday: vs. Carolina, 7 p.m.
Saturday: at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Oct. 6: vs. Tampa Bay, 7 p.m.
Oct. 8: at Tampa Bay, 4 p.m.