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.


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