Florida Panthers

Cats select two Finnish players on second day of NHL Draft

Aleksi Heponiemi celebrates after being selected 40th overall by the Florida Panthers during the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center on June 24, 2017 in Chicago.
Aleksi Heponiemi celebrates after being selected 40th overall by the Florida Panthers during the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center on June 24, 2017 in Chicago. Getty Images

One day after selecting Owen Tippett with the 10th overall pick of the NHL Draft, the Panthers continued to add to their roster with four new players, including two from Finland.

With their second-round pick, the Panthers chose forward Aleksi Heponiemi, 18, a native of Tampere, Finland, who had 86 points in the Western Hockey League last season, setting the pace for all rookies in the league on his way to being named Rookie of the Year.

Heponiemi was listed at only 5-10 and 149 pounds. Panthers general manager Dale Tallon is cognizant that he has some work to do in the training room.

“He has great skill, great vision, great hands, a heck of a release and a good shot,” Tallon said. “He just has to get stronger. That’s all.”

Heponiemi agreed he has to add to his frame.

“I’m still going to grow up; I’m going to get taller and, obviously, I am working on my weight all the time, and I am going to get stronger and stronger,” Heponiemi said. “I don’t think it is going to be a problem at all. There are a lot of small players in the NHL at the moment, so I don’t think it is going to be a problem.”

In the third round, the Panthers grabbed defenseman Max Gildon of Plano, Texas, and two rounds later they chose his world juniors teammate, defenseman Tyler Inamoto.

Inamoto, who didn’t have far to travel to the draft since he lives in suburban Chicago, impressed Panthers executives because of his attitude on the ice.

“We were getting to the point that we were a little too easy to play against,” said Jason Bukala, the Panthers’ amateur scouting director. “[Inamoto is] a relentless competitor. He’s a nasty individual around the net and in the corners, and I think we would be lying to ourselves if we felt we didn’t need to add that element back into the equation.”

In the sixth round, the Panthers used their last pick of the day to take winger Sebastian Repo of Finland.

With the five selections over the two days of the draft, Tallon expressed enthusiasm as the club heads into its development camp.

“Things are kind of turning around quickly for the Florida Panthers, and we are going to be in this for the long haul and for a long time with these players,” Tallon said.

NEW CATS ASSISTANT

Paul McFarland was named an assistant coach and will work under new head coach Bob Boughner. For the past three seasons, McFarland, 31, was coach of the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. Prior to that, Boughner said McFarland worked as a teacher and accountant before moving into coaching.

“He’s very intelligent,” Boughner said. “That’s someone I was looking for. Someone who is young, up and coming and a passionate guy. So I’m happy to have him.”

McFarland will be joined on Boughner’s staff by former New York Islanders head coach Jack Capuano, who was hired on Friday.

“I think we have touched all the bases,” Boughner said. “We have some young energy in Paul McFarland and some experience in [Capuano]. I’m excited to get going and get the players in town and get to work.”

BOUGHNER ON TIPPETT

Boughner said he has been watching Tippett since he was 14 or 15 and likes what he sees in the Panthers’ first-round selection.

“I’m very familiar with him. I love his speed,” Boughner said. “He has an NHL shot already. I talked to him [Saturday] to come with the mind-set of trying to make the team because you can’t teach what he has in his package.”

BARKOV BOND

Two of the Panthers’ draft choices spoke of a connection to Florida top-line center Sasha Barkov, a fellow Finn.

Heponiemi, who hails from the same hometown of Tampere, said he remembers watching Barkov growing up, as Heponiemi’s older brother is the same age as Barkov.

Repo played in Tampere and remembered the adulation the town has for Barkov.

“He’s like a god there,” Repo said.

Repo played with another Finnish player, Henrik Haapala, who just signed as a free agent with the Panthers earlier in the offseason.

Tallon praised scout Jari Kekalainen for his efforts in finding Finnish talent.

“We like what they bring to the table,” Tallon said. “They play hard, they are passionate, they play a North American-style game, and they also have a lot of skill and a desire to play in the NHL.”

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