Juho Lammikko has waited four years for this opportunity.
On Thursday, when the Florida Panthers host their home opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets, his dream will become reality.
With veteran Derek MacKenzie ruled out with an upper body injury, Lammikko will make his NHL debut as the Panthers play their first game inside the BB&T Center of their 25th anniversary season. The 22-year-old forward from Finland will serve as the center on Florida’s fourth line, likely paired with veterans Colton Sceviour on the right wing and Troy Brouwer or Maxim Mamin on the left.
“I’m really excited to be here and to get going,” Lammikko said.
After all, he has been waiting a while for this chance since the Panthers drafted him in the third round of the 2014 NHL Draft. He signed an entry-level contract in April 2016 and spent the last two seasons with the Springfield (Mass.) Thunderbirds, the Panthers’ American Hockey League Affiliate. In that span, Lammikko scored 14 goals and chipped in 25 assists over 106 games.
Panthers coach Bob Boughner raved about Lammikko’s development and performance during the Panthers’ preseason camp and exhibition slate. But with Florida’s depth at forward, a position where the team returned 11 players from last season’s team and added veterans in Brouwer and Mike Hoffman, Lammikko became a victims of the number crunch as the Panthers thinned their roster to the 23-player maximum.
MacKenzie’s injury in the first period on Saturday provided the opening.
“We need a center,” Boughner said. “We talked about how good of a camp he had with exhibition and preseason, so it’s a good opportunity for him to get his first game and help us.”
The soft-spoken Lammikko, who describes himself as a two-way player who can make an impact whether or not he has the puck, said he was told the news after practice with the Thunderbirds on Monday.
“Then I was off to the airport,” he said.
Boughner said the Lammikko will also play a role on the penalty kill in addition to centering the fourth line.
“That’s his forte,” Boughner said. “That’s where his strength is.”
And while it might be a lot to soak in for a newcomer as he makes his debut, Lammikko will have the luxury of working with veterans when he’s on the ice.
At practice Tuesday, he had Sceviour — who is starting his fifth full NHL season and third with the Panthers — to his right. Brouwer, an 11-year NHL veteran, was to his left.
“They’ll be able to settle him down,” Boughner said.
Brouwer can relate to that. The 33-year-old thought back to when he made his NHL debut with the Chicago Blackhawks back in 2006 and was paired with veterans Patrick Sharp and Peter Bondra.
“Sometimes you can be a little bit overwhelmed because there’s so much going on,” Brouwer said, “but Bondra came over to me and said ‘Just play. Have fun. There’s a reason why you’re here.’ That’s the same message we’re gonna relay to him.”
Sceviour added: “He’s easy to play with. He plays the game simple. He knows what he’s doing. That’s the goal of our line.
“He fits that mold.”
Whether Lammikko stays on the roster long-term is to be determined. For now, he’s ready to soak in the experience for as long as he can.