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Armed with a lethal shot, young centerman Aleksi Saarela looks to thrive with Panthers

Defenseman Mike Matheson sent back to South Florida due to illness

Aleksi Saarela of the Charlotte Checkers skates up the ice at Place Bell on December 29, 2018 in Laval, Quebec.
Aleksi Saarela of the Charlotte Checkers skates up the ice at Place Bell on December 29, 2018 in Laval, Quebec. (Stephane Dube /Getty Images)

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Aleksi Saarela is a name that many Florida Panthers fans are probably not very familiar with.

At least, not yet.

Saarela was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this season in exchange for defenseman Ian McCoshen. At the time, the deal was perceived as Florida deciding to move on from a relatively recent second round pick that was once viewed as a key part of the Panthers future defensive core.

The swap of the two highly-touted but seemingly underachieving prospects acted as what each team hoped would be a change-of-scenery-spark that can often ignite the fire a young player yet to reach their potential.

After initially reporting to the Springfield Thunderbirds, Florida’s American Hockey League affiliate, Saarela’s first stint with the big club came in early December when he joined the Panthers for three consecutive home games.

Saarela, who turned 23 in January, said the brief visit helped him get to know some of the Panthers players and coaches, both personally and in the way they want him to play the game.

"I've been working hard down in the AHL and finally got the call-up back, so it's great to be here," he said after Tuesday's practice at Honda Center in Anaheim.

The Helsinki, Finland native arrived with the Panthers as a prospect with high-end offensive talent that, for whatever reason, hadn't been able to carve out an NHL role for himself yet.

The 2015 third round pick of the New York Rangers has been traded twice since being drafted. He's had plenty of success in the AHL, accumulating 139 points over 195 games while adjusting to North American hockey, even winning a Calder Cup last season with the Charlotte Checkers.

Prior to his arrival in Charlotte, Saarela played parts of five seasons in Liiga, the Finnish elite league, so battling against grown men was nothing new. He actually played against his new Panthers teammate Aleksander Barkov in Liiga, when both were just teenagers.

Now the two Finnish transplants may have an opportunity to grow together with the Panthers.

Speaking with me on the Chirping the Cats podcast last month, Florida Panthers Assistant General Manager Eric Joyce, who is also the GM of the Thunderbirds, raved about the kind of teammate Saarela has been since arriving in Springfield.

"He's a guy that was looking for someone to give him a little boost of confidence, and I think that's what he found in (Thunderbirds head coach) Geordie (Kinnear), and you see the results of that," Joyce said.

A FAMILIAR PLACE TO START

Playing in the final year of his entry-level contract, Florida decided to move Saarela back to his natural position of center after he had been used primarily as a wing in the AHL.

Following a brief but expected adjustment period, Saarela has been excelling as a centerman, eventually earning a promotion to Springfield’s top line, where he’s remained for the past couple months.

Now that he's back with the Panthers, Saarela said the key is playing a full, 200-foot game and being just as good in his own zone as he is in the offensive end.

"I can score goals, but I've been playing more both ways, defensively especially," Saarela said. "I know that if I want to be here, I've got to be responsible for the d-zone too, not just offense. That's the biggest thing I've been focusing on."

Florida Panthers center Aleksi Saarela defends in front of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Sunrise, Fla.
Florida Panthers center Aleksi Saarela defends in front of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

His hard work in Springfield has been paying off of late, and it especially showed during back-to-back victories in Charlotte last weekend.

Saarela picked up four points (1-3-4), but perhaps more importantly, he was effective in all three zones and came away with a combined plus-four on-ice rating during the pair of wins.

"He's been playing very well down there," Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said following Tuesday's practice. "His production has been good. Offensively, he's got a lot of skill. He's got a tremendous shot. He sees and makes plays well."

Q made sure to mention that when players are called up, more is expected of them than just in the scoring department, specifically citing Saarela's awareness and positioning.

"We're going to give him an opportunity and see how he helps us out," Quenneville said.

Saarella centered a line with Brett Connolly and Colton Sceviour during Tuesday's practice, and afterwards Q indicated that they could be kept together for Wednesday's game against the Ducks.

MATHESON SENT HOME

Florida defenseman Mike Matheson, who played 12:02 during Monday's 5-3 win in San Jose, could miss the rest of the team's 5-game, 11-day road trip.

He was the only player held out of Tuesday's practice, leading to questions afterwards regarding his absence.

"He's sick, and he's not playing tomorrow," Quenneville said, adding that Matheson was sent back to South Florida and will be reevaluated once he's healthy. "I don't know if he'll be (back) on this trip or not."

Matheson is the latest addition to a list of several Panthers players to be held off the ice with an illness, as MacKenzie Weegar, Sergei Bobrovsky and recently departed Jayce Hawryluk all missed time over the past week or so due to being under the weather.

"When the guys are sick, it's something you've always got to be aware of. You don't want anything spreading," Quenneville said. "Sometimes, you get hit with the flu's and different things and it can run your team down."

Quenneville did not appear overly concerned that what he called, "Kind of a virus" was potentially making its way through the Panthers locker room.

The timing is curious as the NHL Trade Deadline is less than a week away, but Quenneville said the team is just being cautious with Matheson.

“In this situation here, we’re making sure that everything is going to get cleared up, and he’ll be ready to go at the right time,” Q said.


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