SUNRISE, Fla. – With their first round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, the Florida Panthers selected a teenage prospect from Finland that has been turning heads while excelling in one of the top professional leagues in Eurpoe.
Florida and new general manager Bill Zito can only hope this year’s pick will someday compare to the Panthers' selection of Sasha Barkov in 2013.
Tuesday night, Zito used the 12th overall pick of the 2020 NHL Draft on 19-year-old Anton Lundell from Espoo, Finland.
Already playing in his third season in Liiga, otherwise known as the Finnish Elite League, Lundell is a skilled two-way center that has followed a similar path to the one Barkov traveled during his hockey upbringing.
Both are the sons of former professionals who had long, successful careers with their respective clubs in Liiga; Barkov and his father both played for Taapara, which Sasha now partially owns, while Lundell is currently skating with IFK Helsinki (HIFK), the same squad his father Jan was a starring goaltender for parts of three decades.
In 85 games with HIFK over the past three seasons, Lundell has 49 points (20-29-49) and a plus-16 rating. Those are solid numbers, but even more impressive when you consider he played most of those games as an 18 and 19-year-old, and that he’s been constantly moved up and down the lineup but has yet to be given prominent, top line and special teams minutes, something that is expected to change this season.
“You hear people talk about 200-foot game, and to me that really means a hockey player, somebody who competes in all areas of the game,” Zito said late Tuesday night. “One of the hallmarks of Anton is his compete. He enjoys hockey, he likes to play, he wants to win and he’s the player who is the type of player, without putting too much pressure on him or trying to use too many superlatives, we think we’d like to be a Florida Panther. Somebody who does the little things and who likes to play in all areas of the ice, and who actually enjoys playing hockey and wants to win.”
As irony and timing would have it, Barkov also played in 85 games during his time in Liiga, leaving Finland with 64 points (28-36-64) and a plus-23 rating.
The plan is for Lundell, who checks in a 6-foot-1, 183lbs, to finish the season with Helsinki, which will take up a decent chunk of the 2020-21 NHL season that’s expected to begin sometime in January.
“I think it’s important to bring the players along at the right pace,” Zito said. “He’s going to finish out this season is playing now with IFK. At the conclusion of the season we’ll evaluate and see where he is.”
Helsinki’s final regular season game is scheduled for March 30.
Lundell was watching the draft with his family and some close friends at the Helsinki Ice Hall, where HIFK plays its home games, so it was around 3:30 a.m. local time when the group heard his name announced and the real party began.
About an hour later, Lundell joined members of the South Florida media on a Zoom call. Here is what he had to say:
What does it feel like being drafted into the NHL by the Florida Panthers?
“I was really excited to be drafted by the Panthers. I know the Finnish players there and have been following them, so of course I’m really excited.”
You’ve had a pretty crazy day, after playing a Liiga game earlier and now with the draft. Was it hard not to think about the Draft during the game, and how did you spend the time after the game, before the Draft?
“Yeah, it has been a long day for me, and really fun day. I think I will remember this day for a long time. It was easy to play, you just forget about everything else and just try to win for a team, and of course it was really fun that my team did win today. It just made the day even better. After the game, we went out for dinner with my family and friends, and after that we have been waiting for a draft, so yeah, it has been great. We were around 20 people, so not that much. It was really fun to share this day with them.”
Could you describe what type of player you are, and what you feel you can bring to Florida?
“I think my strengths are in the offensive game. I can create chances for myself and my linemates, and at the same time I think can play a really good two-way game. I want to be a trusted player, like who the coach can trust and put on the ice in every situation, and I think I’m strong on faceoffs, too.”
It’s clear you have plenty of confidence in your offensive game and enjoy creating for your teammates, but do you now consider yourself a shoot-first player?
“When I was younger, I always tried to pass first, but the last two seasons I think I have been shooting more. I have been scoring more goals than before and I think I’m like 50-50, but I want to score some goals, too. I like to shoot a lot, but then I like to find my teammates as well.”
When Florida drafted Sasha Barkov we spoke to him about how much playing professional at such a young age helped prepare him for the NHL. How do you feel playing against the older, professional guys is preparing you for what comes next in the NHL?
“I think it’s a really good thing that I have been playing against men. I think I’m more ready to take the next step in the future because, of course, there are really good players (in Liiga), some NHL players too, so I think it’s a very good thing for me.”
You and your father have grown so close on and off the ice, what was it like to share this moment with him?
“It was just amazing to have my family and close friends here. My family has helped me so much growing up and in my career, so to share this day with them made it a special day for everyone.”
Obviously everything is different this year with the pandemic, but what was the interview process like over the summer, and what were your conversations like with the Panthers?
“During the summer, almost every team tried to learn (about) me as a person, talk with me and just ask what were my strengths and weaknesses and stuff like that. I did get a really good feeling from talking with Florida, but of course it was a little bit (surprising), like I wasn’t expecting Florida to take me, so it was a really fun thing.”
How familiar are you with some of the Finnish players in the league and how much has it helped you playing hockey in Finland in terms of preparing you for the NHL?
“I personally don’t know all the Finnish players, but I have seen them play. I think it helps me a lot that I’ve been playing against men (for) whenever I take the next step, so yeah it helps me, it helps me a lot.”
Looking at the Panthers roster, how exciting is it knowing you could be playing and learning alongside fellow Finn Sasha Barkov?
“I’m really excited. He’s one of the best players in the league and it’s going to be really fun.”