“It’s been a great two days for the Florida Panthers organization,” Panthers President of Hockey Operations & General Manager Dale Tallon said from the United Center in Chicago after the draft had wrapped. “We’ve added skill, size and grit to our prospect pool. We look forward to seeing them in action at camp next week and are excited for their futures with the Panthers.”
Almost two full years removed from that draft, the Panthers appear to have hit at least a few home runs with their picks. When TSN hockey analyst Craig Button released his list of the top-50 NHL-affiliated prospects in January, Heponiemi (No. 15) and Tippett (No. 40) made the cut.
Heading into the 2019-20 campaign, both of those highly-touted prospects are expected to turn pro and fight for a roster spot either with the Panthers or the team’s AHL affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds. Gildon and Inamoto, meanwhile, are still developing nicely in the collegiate ranks, while Repo is heading into his second pro season after cutting his teeth in the AHL in 2018-19.
It’s still very early, but this draft certainly looks like a winner.
“We need to be selective and put pieces in the right place because our depth chart is getting nice and balanced and deep,” Tallon said when asked to summarize his approach following the draft in 2017. “Having five picks [at this year’s draft] is fine. It’s quality over quantity, for us.”
Here’s an update on how the draftees of 2017 fared during their respective 2018-19 seasons…
Owen Tippett (1st round, 10th overall)
Position: Right Wing / Left Wing
DOB: Feb. 16, 1999
Weight: 205 lbs.
18-19 Team: Mississauga Steelheads & Saginaw Spirit (OHL)
Tippett appears to be right on track heading into the 2019-20 season.
An early cut from last summer’s training camp, the gifted shooter spent this past season working on improving his all-around game. Already gifted with a world-class shot, he spent his final junior season focusing on his play away from the puck and his positioning in the defensive zone.
Of course, his offense didn’t suffer despite this mental detour. In 54 regular-season games split between Mississauga and Saginaw (he was traded to the Steelheads in January for a heap of draft picks), the 20-year-old registered 33 goals and a career-high 41 assists for 74 total points.
In the OHL playoffs, Tippett helped the Spirit reach the semifinals with team-leading 22 points.
“He’s really bought into playing a more 200-foot game,” Panthers Director of Player Personnel Bryan McCabe said of Tippett in November. “He’s going through bodies, tracking through the neutral zone, doing the other things that are going to make him successful at this level.”
Corey Pronman, the head prospect writer for The Athletic, listed Tippett as one of just three prospects he viewed as “elite” during his mid-season rankings back in January, saying that his “skill level is elite, he makes plays many wouldn’t even think of trying.”
That’s high praise, no?
At the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship, Tippett tallied four points (two goals, two assists) in five games for Team Canada, earning playing time on the team’s top line and power-play unit.
“He played on their top line, played on their first power-play unit and played to his identity as a shooter,” Panthers Director of Amateur Scouting Jason Bukala said after the World Juniors wrapped in January. “He played hard. He’s since been traded in the Ontario Hockey League to a contending team. He’s tracking in the right direction as well.”
Tippett, who signed his entry-level contract and scored one goal during a seven-game stint with Florida in 2017-18, is expected to compete for a spot on the Panthers in the upcoming season.
Aleksi Heponiemi (2nd round, 40th overall)
Position: Center / Right Wing
DOB: Jan. 9, 1999
Weight: 154 lbs.
18-19 Team: Karpat (Liiga)
Heponiemi proved he could handle a heavy workload this past season.
After dominating the WHL for two seasons, the 20-year-old spent the 2018-19 campaign back home in Finland competing in Liiga, the top professional league in the country. Going head to head with grown men every night, he showed he could hold his own.
Racking up 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists) in 50 games with Liiga runner-up Karpat, he finished second to only 2019 projected top-two draft pick Kaapo Kakko in Rookie of the Year voting. The top-scoring rookie in the league, he actually ended up with eight more points than Kakko’s 38.
Heponiemi also led the way for Finland at the 2019 World Juniors, winning a gold medal while registering a tournament-leading nine points (three goals, six assists). Of the seven games he competed in at the event, he managed to make his way onto the scoresheet in five of them.
“This is a guy who handles the puck, who makes plays in tight areas. He’s a water bug,” Bukala said of Heponiemi in December. “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.”
Putting pen to paper on a three-year, entry-level contract with the Panthers in May, Heponiemi is expected to spend the upcoming season as a pro in North America, either in the NHL or AHL.
“We are thrilled to have agreed to terms with Aleksi,” Tallon said in a release after Heponiemi’s signing. “He is an immensely skilled and dynamic player with excellent vision and hockey IQ. Aleksi has been an elite player at every level and a leader on winning teams on the junior and international stages.”
Max Gildon (3rd round, 66th overall)
DOB: May 17, 1999
Weight: 192 lbs.
18-19 Team: University of New Hampshire (NCAA)
Gildon followed up his freshman season with a solid sophomore campaign.
A two-way defenseman and power-play specialist, Gildon was New Hampshire’s leader in goals (8), assists (15), points (23) and shots (84) among defensemen last season. Avoiding a second-year slump, he was just as good in 2018-19, finishing with six goals and 21 points in 31 games.
At 6-foot-3 and 192 pounds, the 20-year-old certainly doesn’t lack size, but admitted during last summer’s development camp that he’s still got to “put on some more muscle mass to play those minutes at the next level.” With the Wildcats, he hopes to follow in the footsteps of some of the program’s current NHL alumni, such as Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce (2012-15).
Oddly enough, both Gildon and Pesce were taken with the 66th overall pick in their drafts.
“New Hampshire does have a long history of defenseman and stuff,” Gildon said. “It’s been awesome. All the coaching staff has really helped me out and helped me be more defensive and stuff like that. It’s been awesome to learn from them.”
Gildon is expected to return to New Hampshire for his junior season in 2019-20.
Tyler Inamoto (5th round, 133rd overall)
DOB: May 6, 1999
Weight: 194 lbs.
18-19 Team: University of Wisconsin (NCAA)
Inamoto was a towering wall of toughness on the Badgers blue line this past season.
A defensive-defenseman, the 20-year-old tallied one goal and six assists to go along with a team-leading 71 penalty minutes during his sophomore campaign at Wisconsin in 2018-19. Not afraid of putting himself in harm’s way to shut down an opposing play, he also ranked second on the team with a career-best 65 blocked shots.
Known for being a fearless competitor with an ever-present chip on his shoulder, Inamoto was also this year’s winner of Wisconsin’s Fenton Kelsey Jr./Mike Richter Most Competitive Award.
“He’s a relentless competitor,” Bukala said after Inamoto was drafted. “He’s not going to provide us a lot on the offensive side of the game, but he’s a nasty individual around the net and in the corners. I think we’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t need to add that back into our equation. That’s what we were looking for.”
Inamoto is expected to be back with the Badgers for his junior season in 2019-20.
Sebastian Repo (6th round, 184th overall)
Position: Right Wing
DOB: June 23, 1996
Weight: 190 lbs.
18-19 Team: Springfield Thunderbirds (AHL)
Given his age, Repo has a bit of a head start of the other members of his draft class.
Already 21 years old when he was drafted, Repo, now 22, made his AHL debut during the 2018-19 season, posting 12 goals, eight assists and 45 penalty minutes in 64 games with Springfield.
At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, Repo brought with him neither the lack of size nor experience that you would usually expect to see from a first-year pro. Prior to heading to North America, he’d already suited up in parts of four seasons in Liiga, the premier pro circuit in his native Finland.
At his first development camp in 2017, Panthers personnel described him as “a beast.”
“He’s a man-child,” McCabe said of Repo. “He’s a pro already. He’s played pro in [Finland]. He’s obviously got the strength to compete at this level. We’re really excited that he’s free and clear to come over and start his NHL journey this season. [He’s a] power forward, goes hard to the areas, heavy shot and willing to get in the muck.”
A power forward who plays with more ferocity than flash, Repo will be battling for either a spot on the Panthers or Thunderbirds when training camp rolls around sometime in September.