Florida Panthers prospect Aleksi Heponiemi has only two things on his mind during his second season in the Western Hockey League: packing on pounds and putting up points.
The 40th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, the 18-year-old forward has been terrorizing opposing defenses on a nightly basis for the Swift Current Broncos, using a dangerous blend of speed and skill to capture the WHL's scoring lead with 54 (16-38-54) points in 21 games.
"We're playing pretty well as a team," Heponiemi told FloridaPanthers.com last week. "That's a big part of my game and makes it easier. I have really good linemates at the moment; we play really well together. We're playing a good defensive game and all the parts are clicking for us right now."
Swift Current (15-5-1) currently sits in second place in the WHL's East Division. In addition to Heponiemi, the organization also boasts the league's second and third highest scorers in Arizona Coyotes prospect Tyler Steenbergen (53 points) and Calgary Flames prospect Glenn Gawdin (43 points).
"We have really good chemistry," said Heponiemi, who is on pace to shatter the career-high 86 points he put up last season. "Steenbergen is a really good goal-scoring guy. I like to make plays for him and pass him the puck. Gawdin is really good at passing the puck and working hard, as well."
While his team continues to climb the standings, Heponiemi is also beginning to garner individual accolades for his consistent, dynamic play. He was named the Player of the Week in both the WHL and CHL for the week ending November 12 after recording nine points (2-7-9) in two games. "It's obviously a big thing," he said of the award. "It's nice to know that when you work hard it pays off."
A native of Tampere, Finland -- yes, the same town that produced Panthers superstar center Aleksander Barkov - Heponiemi is playing in his second WHL season after being selected by the Broncos with the 10th overall pick in the 2016 CHL Import Draft. After spending the 2015-16 season with Ilves U18 of the Jr. B SM-sarja league in Finland, Heponiemi admits that the quick transition to North America was initially jarring, but now he's "definitely really comfortable."
At 5-foot-10 and 148 pounds, Heponiemi said one of the biggest areas of his game that he needs to improve upon is his size. But that can be a difficult task for any young skater to take on during the season, as regular games and workouts keep pounds from piling up quickly. "It's going to be slow, but it's going to come," he said of the process.
If there's one thing he's really hungry for, however, it's more goals.
"A big thing for me is my physical size," said Heponiemi, who said he happily chows down on anything his billet family puts on the table. "I'm trying to work hard at the gym and obviously I have to eat a lot. That's a big thing for me. I also want to get my shot better. I want to score more goals. I wasn't happy last year. This year I want to score more goals."
A highly skilled forward with an even higher ceiling, Heponiemi know he's still got a lot of work to do before he can handle the rigors of the NHL. But until that day comes, the gifted playmaker admits that he's less worried about impressing the Panthers and more concerned with appeasing his harshest critic: himself.
"I'm not there to impress anyone," Heponiemi said of his mindset this season. "I just want to play the game. I want to get better every day. This year it's really just about getting better as a player and working hard. It's about doing some extra things on the ice and getting better as a player.
"I obviously saw [at Florida's training camp] that speed is a really big thing. If you're not fast, you can't make it there. You've also got to be big there. I saw there's really good players. There are lots of really good players, so you've got to work hard and be better than everyone else."