Each year while scouting countless young prospects in various leagues there is always one player in particular that tickles my fancy and ends up being thoroughly enjoyable to watch for whatever reasons, and becomes a player I end up ranking higher than the perceived consensus.
Last year that prospect was Mississauga’s Michael McLeod…a player who often looks like he was shot out of a cannon to start a shift. This year that honour goes to Swift Current rookie winger Aleksi Heponiemi, a 17-year-old Finn a shade under 5-10 who has been turning heads in the WHL since training camp.
Heponiemi took no time adjusting to the North American game as from the first week of the season he has been leading all WHL rookies in scoring and been among the league leaders in both points and assists.
The high assists totals are no surprise when you watch him play – he’s easily already one of the smartest players in the league as well as one of the most skilled with the puck, and he is constantly setting up teammates for terrific scoring opportunities; just ask his coach Manny Viveiros.
“His vision on the ice is as good as I’ve seen it in a long time,” said Viveiros from his coaching office in Swift Current today. “He sees the ice on a different level at times as far as making different plays. He’s a great passer, he’s got a sneaky good wrist shot too…people are finding out that he can shoot the puck and he can score goals.”
The statistics bear that out. After notching just six goals in his first 31 games, Heponiemi has 21 goals in his last 39 games as he’s worked hard on improving his shot since joining the club last August.
“His work ethic…I call him a typical young Finn,” said Viveiros. “He’s really focused, he knows what he wants to be, and he puts the work in, on ice, off ice and everything else. He’s worked on his shot a lot too. He’s a kid that later on at 21-22 or 23 you’re going to get a good player.
Ranked as a third or fourth-rounder by many scouting agencies for most of the season, in recent weeks he has climbed into Recrutes top 40 thanks to his development into a more complete player with his goal-scoring exploits and improved all-around play, but mostly because he’s arguably the best playmaker in the draft.
“He really is going to be a good pro,” said Viveiros. “Talking to a lot of different scouts, and they dont know where to put this young man in the draft. I’m told by them this isn’t an overly talented draft group. And my outlook is if that’s the case then this kid should go sooner rather than later.”
Viveiros figures that Heponiemi’s skills are on par with any of the highly-regarded WHL prospects, and he’s not incorrect.
“Looking at the better kids in our league at that age and skill level that are rated higher than him, but he’s off the charts,” said Viveiros. “I know some are scared about his size and stuff like that but as small as he is right now playing against players in our league, he’s dominant already because he’s so smart and skilled.”
Heponiemi is one of, if not the lightest, top-60 prospects in recent years, but it’s not like he’s been manhandled in his rookie WHL seson.
“He just over 150 (pounds) right now” said Viveiros. “He’s holding pretty steady around that now. He can grow…there’s room for him to put on some weight muscle-wise. He’s not as weak as everybody thinks he is, he’s not weak by any means. He’s quick, and when he gets bumped it doesn’t knock him down.
“He’s smart about it too. We don’t want him going in the corners all the time either, but when he does he comes out with the puck.”
As Viveiros readily admitted, it’s not easy to rank the skilled Finn as he is one of the ten most talented players in this draft, yet there will always be nagging doubts about whether he will be able to handle the pro size despite his prodigious talent.
“I’ve talked to scouts who worry about how much he’s going to grow and how big this kid is going to be in three or four years,” saiid Viveiros. “But for me the kid already has the skill; stuff that’s tough to teach them later on. If a kid can’t pass, shoot and score at 17 or 18, they’re certainly not going to do it at 20 or 25.
“I really like the kid. What I like most about him is the work ethic he puts in. That for me is the important thing…I see it every day.”
Odds are some fortunate NHL team is going to see it every day as well if they can get over the size phobia and select this kid where he deserves to be chosen – somewhere in the draft’s top 40.