CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – The Florida Panthers have been one of the deepest teams in the NHL over the past couple seasons.
Since arriving nearly two years ago, Florida General Manager Bill Zito has done an excellent job building a roster that is now considered worthy of contending for the Stanley Cup.
One byproduct of that success is the jobs on the bottom half of the roster become that much more difficult to obtain.
The competition is amazingly stiff, and the players fighting and clawing for one of those few coveted spots are a healthy mix of veterans looking to continue their careers, and youngsters hoping to start theirs.
A couple of those youngsters, Aleksi Heponiemi and Matt Kiersted, have remained with the Panthers throughout this month’s training camp, and are still with the big club as Zito and his staff continue trimming the roster ahead of Opening Night on Oct. 13.
Heponiemi was selected in the second round of the 2017 NHL Draft and has been a constant in the Panthers system in the years since.
Having been around the team for the past few years, his hunger to play at the highest level has only grown during his development.
“I want to play here, and that’s the goal,” Heponiemi told Local 10 News.
An undersized forward, Heponiemi checks in at 5-foot-10, 155 lbs. though his size never seemed to be a hindrance when it came to playing hockey.
The Finnish native racked up 204 points in 129 WHL games spanning the 2016-17 and 17-18 seasons, then played the following year in Liiga where he produced 16 goals and 46 points in 50 games for Karpat.
Remaining effective despite making the difficult transition from junior to pro has proven to be quite difficult for many-a-prospect, so Heponiemi’s development track was one that appeared to be going well.
In 2019 he made the move back to North America and joined the Panthers system, signing his ELC (entry-level contract) and spending the season with the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds.
There have been a couple brief stints with the NHL squad since then, but the focus has remained on the continued development of his game while learning and mastering the challenges and intricacies of playing both center and wing on this side of the pond.
Last season was a big step in the right direction for the man his teammates refer to as Hepo.
Now 23 years old, Heponiemi became a key component of the Charlotte Checkers, Florida’s current AHL affiliate. As his play became more consistent and his ice time increased, so grew his confidence.
He finished the year with 39 points in 56 games while earning the trust and praise of his teammates and coaches.
Now, the former 40th overall pick is looking to earn a permanent job at the highest level, but he’s well aware of the depth of the Panthers and how difficult it will be to earn, and keep, a roster spot.
“It’s tough,” Heponiemi said. “There are a lot of great players here, so the competition is high.”
Since signing with Florida, Heponiemi has played in 15 NHL games over the past two seasons, logging a goal and two assists.
If nothing else, it gives him a slight advantage in the experience department over some of his fellow Panthers forward prospects looking to find regular playing time with the big boys.
Heponiemi arrived at camp this year full of conviction and with clear goals in mind.
Even with a new coaching staff, Hepo had a good idea of what areas of his game he needed to improve in order to make an impression.
“Shooting more,” Heponiemi said. “Getting pucks in the offensive zone and hanging on (to possession).”
Shifting over to the blue line, Defenseman Matt Kiersted is also in that group of young players considered on the fringe of the roster.
Undrafted but highly heralded out of the University of North Dakota, Kiersted had his choice of NHL suitors to choose from when his collegiate career came to an end.
He decided to sign his ELC with Florida in April of 2021 and immediately joined the Panthers, a team that was thin on the back end following a gruesome injury suffered by Aaron Ekblad two weeks prior.
Kiersted played seven NHL games that season and another 10 during Florida’s 21-22 campaign, while adding 63 games at the AHL level.
“I think original plan that first (full) year, getting in all those pro games, was to find a comfort level and a confidence in myself and knowing I could perform,” Kiersted said.
The 6-foot, 181-pound rearguard is hoping to carve out a more permanent role for himself with the Cats this season and said making the team is his number one goal in camp.
There certainly should be opportunity following the departure of MacKenzie Weegar, but just because there may be a roster spot to be had, it doesn’t mean Kiersted is putting any additional strain on himself.
“I think there’s pressure every year to make the team and perform, and that’s for anybody, but I think (for me) just control you can control, show up every day, work hard, do what you’re asked and just make a tough decision for the staff,” he said.
Spending the majority of last season with Charlotte proved to be extremely beneficial for Kiersted and his development.
It allowed him time to adjust to pro hockey, and in turn he took some big strides in growing as a professional both on and off the ice.
“The game is different, bigger guys but also faster, and the play making is a little better,” Kiersted said. “With the experience and getting games in, I feel a lot more confident than when I first started.”
Zito and new Panthers Head Coach Paul Maurice still have a few days to finalize their Opening Night roster and decide which players will continue working in South Florida and which will head to Charlotte.
For now, Kiersted and Heponiemi remain in contention for NHL jobs.
How long they stick around remains to be seen, but both players are doing everything possible to leave a lasting impression on the decision makers.
“My main goals are just to keep my nose down, work hard and compete,” said Kiersted. “I take a lot of pride in my compete level.”
“We’re doing the things we can,” added Heponiemi. “We’ll just try to work on our skill and try to make the team.”
The Panthers may be deep, but over the course of an 82-game schedule that depth is bound to be tested.
Its players like Heponiemi and Kiersted that could make all the difference for Florida when the time comes, and their numbers are called.
Florida has two preseason games remaining before the roster will be finalized.
Those games represent the two best opportunities for Kierstad and Heponiemi to make a final case for a spot on that roster.
“I just want to play in the NHL,” said Heponiemi. “That’s the goal here.”
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