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Haapala 'ready as I can be' for jump to NHL

23-year-old aiming to make Panthers after leading Finland's top league in scoring last season

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

Rookie left wing Henrik Haapala arrived from Finland three weeks ago with the intention of using the time before beginning his first NHL training camp with the Florida Panthers to get used to his new surroundings.

Hurricane Irma threw a wrench into that plan, forcing Haapala to evacuate to Boston for a few days along with many of his new teammates and team employees. For the 23-year-old, the experience was a bit of an eye opener.

"I've never seen that big of a storm in Finland," Haapala said.

Fortunately for Haapala, a native of Lempaala who signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Panthers as an undrafted free agent on June 1, he had a good friend around to help him get comfortable after they returned to Florida. Haapala and Panthers center Aleksander Barkov have known each other for more than a decade; they played together in youth hockey and later at the junior and pro levels with Tampere Tappara in Liiga, Finland's top league.

They were linemates with Tappara in 2012-13 before Barkov, who is from Tampere, came to the NHL to join the Panthers in 2013-14 after being taken No. 2 in the 2013 NHL Draft. They're hoping to play together again with Florida.

"I've known him since I was 10 or 11 years old," said Barkov, now 22. "We played on the same junior team for almost my whole junior career and in the same men's league team. And we work out together in the summer and just spend a lot of time together. Now we're on the same team in the NHL.

"Both of us are living the dream right now. We'll try to win something together."

Haapala had never been to the United States before attending the Panthers' development camp in late June. To ease his transition, Haapala is living with Barkov during training camp. If Haapala has any questions, Barkov is there to share his experiences from his four seasons in the NHL.

"That's a big thing because there's a lot of new things for me, like the whole game with the tactics and how to play here because the [NHL rink] is so much smaller than in Finland," Haapala said. "So I can ask [Barkov] to tell me if I understand something and it's a big help for me."

Haapala said he decided to sign with the Panthers because after talking to general manager Dale Tallon he felt they provided his best chance to play in the NHL this season. Having Barkov on the team was a bonus.

"I talked with my agent and we decided that Florida is the best opportunity for me," Haapala said. "Of course, it's a big plus to have [Barkov] here, but we decided it [without that]."

Haapala knows he has some work to do to make the opening night roster. He has speed and offensive skill, as evidenced by his league-leading 45 assists and 60 points with Tappara last season. Haapala also had nine points (two goals, seven assists) in 16 playoff games to help Tappara win its second consecutive Liiga championship.

But at 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, he'll have to prove he can be effective at his size in the NHL and make the adjustment from playing on the wider international ice surface. He got off to a good start by scoring a power-play goal 4:32 into his first NHL preseason game on Tuesday, a 5-3 victory against the Nashville Predators.

"He's an offensive player, and he was one of the leading scorers in the Finnish league over there. So when he comes here and he's in games, he's got to find a way to trigger into the offense," Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. "He did that early on the power play in the first game, and positionally I thought he was solid. For a guy like that to make our team, he's got to contribute offensively. He's going to get a lot of opportunities over the next five [preseason] games to prove that."

With an increasing emphasis on speed in the NHL, Haapala's skating can be an asset for the Panthers, and Barkov believes he has enough talent to overcome his lack of size.

"He can play the game like a big guy plays the game, but you see those smaller guys more and more in the NHL," Barkov said. "I don't see that being a problem anymore because there's so many smaller guys and you see them like [Calgary Flames forward] Johnny Gaudreau and [Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitchell] Marner and guys like; they're among the best players in the League right now."

Haapala said that with the way the game has evolved in recent seasons "it's not the size, it's the skill" that matters most now. That made the timing right for him to make the jump to the NHL this season.

"When it was my year to draft players (2012), the game was way different than it is now," Haapala said. "So I think it's going a good way and I think it suits me better. … I'm 23 and I played four years in the men's league [in Finland] and I think now is the time if ever [to try to play in the NHL]. Maybe next year it would be too late. I think this year I'm as ready as I can be."

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