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World Juniors Preview: Panthers Loaded With Top-Line Talent

The tournament will run from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, with two groups of five teams competing in an internal round-robin before moving on to a three-round playoff to decide a winner. Canada enters the event as defending champions, defeating Sweden 3-1 in last year’s grand finale.

All games will be broadcast on NHL Network in the U.S. and TSN in Canada. Click HERE to see the full schedule of games. 

 For the tournament’s preliminary round, the 10 participating nations have been split up into two separate groups: the Czech Republic, Canada, Denmark, Russia and Switzerland are in Group A, while Sweden, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Finland and the United States make up Group B.

But regardless of who comes out on top, the Florida Panthers are already feeling like winners.

After several years of solid scouting and drafting, the Panthers boast three of the most-dynamic prospects at this year’s tournament in forwards Aleksi Heponiemi, Grigori Denisenko and Owen Tippett. As of right now, all three are projected to play top-line roles for their respective nations.

“It’s exciting for the organization,” Panthers director of amateur scouting Jason Bukala recently told “I know they’re excited about that. We’re proud of it. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. We’re proud that these guys continue to earn respect around the world from not only their club teams, but even opponents and other periodicals, if you will.”

When asked about how he evaluates the performance of a prospect during the World Juniors compared to a regular contest, Bukala said one of the biggest perks of the annual tournament is that it allows scouts to see a different side of players, especially under such a bright spotlight.

“It’s a situation that’s obviously got a lot of intensity and a lot of pressure to play to an identity that their team has asked them to play to,” Bukala said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how they can adjust and play to an identity to help the team win in a pressure-filled environment.

“If they’re asking them to play to the identity that we’re going to expect them to have with us down the road, we’re obviously curious to see what kind of results they can provide. Obviously we have three high-end offensive guys in this tournament, so we’re hoping they produce offensively against the best competition for their age in the world.”

That being said, here’s a closer look at Florida’s three world-class competitors:

1. Aleksi Heponiemi

Team: Finland

Position: Right Wing / Center

Drafted: 40th overall, 2017 NHL Draft

Size appears to no longer be an issue for Heponiemi.

Listed at 5-foot-10 and 158 pounds, the 19-year-old forward has been proving that you don’t need girth to generate goals while suiting up in Finland’s top pro circuit, Liiga. In 29 games with first-place Karpat, he ranks second on the team in scoring with 26 points (eight goals, 18 assists).

A dazzling playmaker with otherworldly hockey sense, Heponiemi posted 204 points (56 goals, 148 assists) in 129 regular-season games in the WHL before heading home to play pro hockey.

“He hasn’t missed a beat,” Bukala said. “He’s their second-leading scorer in Karpat. For people that have not really had a chance to see him play, he’s kind of my version of Mitch Marner in Toronto — a smaller, lighter player with elite vision. You can’t teach what he has… It’s just fun to watch this kid play. He gives you that impression that… he’s going to prove everybody wrong every step of the way.”

At the Four Nations in November, Heponiemi tallied a team-leading five points (two goals, three assists) to lead Finland to a perfect 3-0-0 record and tournament win. Teaming up with Rasmus Kupari, a first-round pick of Los Angeles this past summer, the duo was absolutely dominant.

In his second appearance at the World Juniors, Heponiemi is projected to be centered by Kupari on Finland’s top line and first power play unit. The only prospect representing Florida at last year’s tournament, he tallied three goals and one assist in 10 games as Finland failed to medal.

“He’s going to have the top minutes to produce,” Bukala said. “If Finland is going to have a successful tournament, their top group is going to have to perform at a high level, and he’s kind of the catalyst for that.”

Previously believing Heponiemi needed to be around 165 pounds before being ready to make an impact in the NHL, Bukala said he believes that, given his wealth of talent and how the professional game continues to evolve, that might no longer be the case down the road.

“I think he can play at the weight he’s at right now,” Bukala said. “The game has changed. It’s evolved over the years. This is a guy who handles the puck, who makes plays in tight areas. He’s a water bug. He’s hard to contain… He’s proving in a good league in Finland that he’s already capable of scoring at a high level in the pros. He’ll be with us sooner than later.”

2. Owen Tippett

Team: Canada

Position: Right Wing

Drafted: 10th overall, 2017 NHL Draft

For Tippett, the stage couldn’t be any bigger.

Sent back from Florida’s training camp earlier this summer, the 19-year-old has been working on improving his all-around game with Mississauga in the OHL this season, notching 19 goals and 33 points while playing sound defense in 23 games to gain the attention of Team Canada.

“Tipp went back with a mandate that he had to be more engaged away from the play, away from the puck, more engaged and defensive,” Bukala said. “We told him that his offensive wouldn’t fade just because he played with more detail, and it hasn’t. He earned the trust of the Team Canada brass very early.”

Standing at 6-foot-2 and 204 pounds, Tippett has NHL-ready size and a rocket for a wrist shot, which Bukala believes some pundits will soon be reminded of during his World Juniors debut.

“I don’t think they realize how hard this kid shoots the puck,” Bukala said. “It’s almost like they forgot about it for a bit. It’s going to be a pleasant reawakening for them to see how he shoots the puck again. We’re hoping for a big tournament from him.”

After scoring one goal in seven games during a brief stint with the Panthers at the start of the 2017-18 campaign, Tippett’s improvements away from the puck have him poised to make the jump from junior superstar to full-time pro next season if he continues on his current trajectory.

Hoping to help Canada repeat as champions, the Peterborough, Ontario native is expected to start the tournament on the right side of Canada’s top line and also on the first power play unit.

“He’s been recognized by his entire country and given an opportunity,” Bukala said. “That’s all it is right now, an opportunity to play on Canada’s top line, on home soil in the biggest tournament at your level. I don’t think it gets any more motivating than that. I know he feels really good about it.”

3. Grigori Denisenko

Team: Russia

Position: Left Wing / Center

Drafted: 15th overall, 2018 NHL Draft

Denisenko has been dominant at the junior level this season.

At 5-foot-11 and 176 pounds, the 18-year-old forward has spent time in both the KHL and MHL this season, registering one goal and two assists in four games with Yaroslavl’s junior club and three goals in 15 games with their pro team, where Bukala said he received “limited exposure.”

But after joining Russia’s national team on the junior tournament circuit, his season really took off.

In November, Denisenko tallied three goals and two assists to in a single game to finish tied with Heponiemi for the scoring lead at the Four Nations Tournament in the Czech Republic. From there, he went on to register four points in five games at the Junior Club World Cup.

“When he came back to his own age group, he just jumped off the map,” Bukala said. “It’s hard not to notice him in the tournament in the Czech Republic last month. What you notice about him right away is that already he’s even faster, even stronger.

“He’s got a pro release. You forget sometimes how hard this kid can shoot the puck. He’s such a skilled player with the puck on his stick. Not only was he making plays, but he scored some goals with some shots that an NHL goaltender would have a hard time stopping.”

Denisenko is expected to start on Russia’s top line and top power play unit at the World Juniors.

“He’s going to be NHL-ready sooner than later, so we’re really excited about where he’s going,” Bukala said. “The fact that he can play center and on the wing is also obviously a big plus.”

Follow @JamesonCoop and @FlaPanthers on Twitter for World Juniors updates.

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