The Panthers made four picks on day 2 of the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center on Saturday.
A day after selecting Owen Tippett – who’s described as being a natural goal scorer – with the 10th overall selection, the Panthers went back to work with four picks in rounds 2 through 7.
With the 40th overall pick, the Panthers took 5’10”, 148-pound center Aleksi Heponiemi, an incredibly cerebral Finnish center out of the WHL.
“It’s a huge honor to go [here], great organization, lots of Finnish guys, so [it’s] absolutely [a] great thing,” said Heponiemi, a native of Tampere, Finland, the same hometown of Aleksander Barkov.
The 18-year old won the league’s Rookie of the Year award this past season after leading all first-year players in goals (28), assists (58), and points (86) while skating for the Swift Current Broncos.
Heponiemi was ranked 26th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.
“He is fantastic on the power play,” said Jason Bukala, the Panthers’ Director of Amateur Scouting, of Heponiemi. “He see’s the ice and makes special, special plays. Eighty-six points in the Western Hockey League, he’s a real special player.
“He makes plays in tight areas, quick stick, offensive brain.”
Heponiemi is expected to head back to the Broncos next season where he’ll work on adding to his lanky frame.
“He’s certainly light, he’s got time on his side to put on some weight,” said Bukala.
In the 3rd round, the Panthers went with Max Gildon, a rangy defender with an offensive touch out of the United States National Development Program.
At 6’3″, 187 pounds, he has some room to grow but boasts a booming shot and solid physical tools.
Gildon tallied 33 points in 63 games inside the development program and an additional 14 points in 26 games in USHL games for the USNTDP Juniors team.
His teammate and defensive partner, Tyler Inamoto, was chosen by the Panthers with their 5th-round pick.
Not exactly known for his offensive abilities, Inamoto, who is a native of Chicago but of Japanese descent, plays a tough, physically-imposing, stay-at-home game.
“I’d say I’m a defensive defenseman, physical in my own zone and hard to play against,” said Inamoto. “I make good first passes and can bring a little offense.”
He managed just 2 goals and 11 assists in 51 games for the Development Program this season and another 7 points in 17 games in the USHL.
Gildon and Inamoto were ranked 54 and 68 respectively by NHL Central Scouting.
“Max brings a little bit more of an offensive element,” said Bukala. “He peaked offensively in the second half of the season, he shoots the puck a ton. He’s not gonna be a Jason Garrison […] but Max Gildon shoots it every bit as hard as he does, if not harder.”
Bukala admitted that the motivation behind selecting Inamoto was the fact that the organization felt they needed to add some more toughness to the lineup and depth chart.
“We really were looking to add an element of aggressiveness,” he said. “We felt that we got away from that a little bit, we were getting to the point where we were a little bit too easy to play against. [Inamoto] is a relentless competitor. […] He’s a nasty individual in front of the net and in the corners.”
Gildon is committed to the University of New Hampshire for the 2017-18 season while Inamoto will attend the University of Wisconsin where he’ll have a great opportunity to develop and earn a top spot right away.
For their final pick of the draft, the Panthers went back to Finland to select Sebastian Repo, a 21-year old forward who spent the last two seasons playing in Liiga, the country’s top professional league.
Repo, chosen in the 6th round, played for Tappara, the same team that Barkov and recently-signed Henrik Haapala played for before joining the Panthers’ organization.
He recorded 32 points in 46 games as a teammate of Haapala, and measuring in at 6’2′, 198 pounds, he’s said to be ready to join the pro ranks in North America as soon as this coming year.
“I took some pretty big steps this past season,” said Repo. “I can play on both ends. I really, really improved my defensive skills.”
Repo projects to be a solid two-way, bottom-6 winger if he pans out.
This is not the first time the Panthers have taken an overage European prospect out of a pro league. They did it last year in the 6th round with Maxim Mamin, who was also 21 at the time and recently finished up his third season in the KHL.
It’s a really smart move and one that gives the Panthers a player who’s closer to competing for a lineup spot without having to wait several years for them to fully develop.
“[Repo’s] a player that we’ve tracked for a number of years as he’s developed,” Bukala said.”He’s quicker, he’s faster [than in the past], and he’s a big, big body.
“He’s played pro hockey already, he’s pro ready, he’s gonna have a chance to come over here and play either in the [AHL] and we’ll see where it goes from there, NHL maybe.”
Two of the four total picks on day 2 being players born in Finland gave Bukala a chance to praise Jari Kekalainen, the Panthers’ Head European Scout.
“There’s a lot of great scouts in this game, but he does his homework and he’s an outstanding scout,” said Bukala. “He’s done a great job identifying some really high-quality Finnish players […] and at the end of the day, he’s right way more times than he’s wrong.”
Kekalainen was the major voice behind the Panthers selecting Barkov 2nd overall at the 2013 Draft and Henrik Borgstrom with the 21st pick at the 2016 Draft.
“We really trust his instincts, vision and scouting,” said General Manager Dale Tallon.
All of the Panthers’ 2017 draft picks – as well as many other prospects from within the organization – are expected to attend development camp at the Ice Den in Coral Springs this coming week.
The on-ice workouts begin Tuesday and run through Friday.
The Panthers also announced on Saturday morning that they hired Paul McFarland to serve as an assistant coach for Bob Boughner.
McFarland is the older brother of John McFarland who the Panthers selected 32nd overall at the 2010 NHL Draft. John suited up for 3 games with the Panthers before leaving the organization last off-season.
“We are thrilled to add Paul to our coaching staff,” said Boughner. “In three seasons as a head coach in Kingston, Paul’s team has not missed the playoffs. He is young, intelligent and can relate to our team’s young core.”
Paul, 31, served as the assistant coach of the OHL’s Oshawa Generals for two seasons before spending the last 3 years as the head coach of the Kingston Frontenacs.
He doesn’t have any pro hockey experience, but played 246 games in the OHL, as well as one season with the Windsor Spitfires during Boughner’s first year of owning the team in 2005.
“He interviewed this week and he blew us out of the water,” said Tallon. “I was really impressed with all the little things that he can help us with: face-offs, power plays, positioning, all these things that were quite impressive. Five minutes into the interview I wanted to hire him.”