CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – One of the biggest mysteries of training camp has surrounded Florida Panthers rookie Anton Lundell.
An injury sustained last month while playing in a development camp tournament against fellow prospects from the Tampa Bay Lightning kept Lundell’s status up in the air.
Based on everything he’s done since being selected by the Panthers in the first round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, most expected Lundell to be ready for the next challenge.
He excelled playing for Finland at the 2021 World Junior Championships and spent his time before and after the tournament providing above average play for HIFK in Liiga, regarded as one of the top professional hockey leagues in the world.
But young hockey players have dominated at those levels before, only to arrive in the NHL and realize that it’s a completely different monster, more challenging than anything they’ve ever experienced.
Panthers training camp has been pushing forward since it opened two weeks ago in Sunrise, but Lundell was left as a spectator.
He’d been patiently waiting to be healthy enough to join practice, and on Monday that day finally arrived.
Lundell joined the Panthers during a team practice at the Ice Den in Coral Springs, skating on a line with Joe Thornton and Maxim Mamin, both of whom were also returning from minor injuries.
It was clear from the moments his skate blades cut into the ice of Florida’s main practice rink that Lundell was an extremely happy guy.
“I’ve been working hard for a few weeks now,” Lundell said. “I feel great.”
So…we know that Lundell performed amazingly under the global spotlight of the World Juniors and that he can drive play and put up points while skating among grown men in a top pro league, but the question remains whether he is ready for the ultimate next step.
Is this kid, who won’t be old enough to drink (in the U.S.) for another 364 days, handle the immense challenge of playing, and producing, in the NHL, or will he require some American League seasoning?
Judging by the opinions of his new teammates, and three-time Stanley Cup champion head coach, the Finnish hockey star is ready for the big stage.
“He looked like a hockey player today,” Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said Monday. “His positioning, his awareness, his movements…he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat out there.”
Added defenseman Radko Gudas: “For the age he’s at, I think he looks really good. I’m looking forward to seeing him in a game situation. He doesn’t look like he’s 20 on the ice. He looks like that off, but not on the ice.”
Thornton, who skated to the left of Lundell on a line Monday, has been able to get a good look at the NHL hopeful over the past month.
After signing with the Panthers in mid-August, Thornton and his family relocated to South Florida soon afterwards so the 42-year-old could begin getting acclimated to his new team and its facilities.
That gave Thornton the opportunity to get a look at Lundell during a handful of intense, high-energy informal workouts with other NHL pros at the Ice Den.
Needless to say, the veteran entering his 24th season in the National has been impressed by young Finn.
“Great skater, good poise with the puck,” Thornton said. “I’ve been skating with him, rehabbing with him along the way, so I got to know him quite well. He’s just a really, really good, all-around player.”
The praise went both ways, as you would probably expect when putting an NHL rookie (and lifelong hockey fan) alongside a future Hall of Famer.
Not only is Lundell learning the ropes of what it takes to make it in the NHL, he’s learning it from one of the most popular, dedicated, and down-to-earth guys in the league.
“He does everything really professionally,” Lundell said of Thornton. “You can see why he’s had this long career. He’s an unbelievable, hard-working guy, and every day he’s just laughing at the rink.”
If Monday’s practice was any indication, Lundell will get an opportunity to show what he can do in the NHL sooner rather than later.
Sure, it was his first official training camp practice, and he was joining a group that had been going hard for nearly two weeks, but that didn’t stop Lundell from fitting in as well as one of Dan Marino’s Isotoner gloves.
“It looked he could do everything out there,” Quenneville said, “I was pleased with what we saw today on the ice with him. As far as his instincts, his pace, he looked like he’s been a part of this group for a while.”
Learning from legends like Quenneville and Thornton every day at the rink are invaluable experiences for a young player like Lundell.
Thornton said he’s been happy to share his wisdom, and will continue to do so as the rookie gets acclimated to the extreme challenges that come with playing at this level.
The biggest key to success for the rookie?
“Consistency,” Thornton said. “82 games is a long season, and we’ve talked about that. Just stay healthy, get your sleep, eat right, just little things like that.”
Another great role model that Lundell has the good fortune to learn from is Panthers captain Sasha Barkov.
Lundell, who turned 20 years old on Sunday, has been a fan of Barkov’s since he was a child.
Now he gets to live out any hockey fan’s ultimate fantasy: bunking up with one of your favorite players.
That’s right…since arriving in South Florida a few weeks prior to the Panthers development camp, Lundell has been living in the guest room at Barkov’s home in Boca Raton.
Could a young Finnish hockey player have any better of a welcome to the NHL?
“He has helped me a lot,” Lundell said.
When asked what kind of roommate Barkov was, Lundell couldn’t help but laugh when giving his answer, indicating he’s already getting to know his captain and countryman.
“He’s quiet,” Lundell said with a laugh.
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Speaking for the first time since the start of training camp, Thornton touched on several items while taking questions from the media.
On where he wants to play: “Anywhere you want, I’m easy. I’ve played everywhere. It doesn’t matter where I play, I just enjoy coming to the rink every day. Whatever they need, I’ll do.”
On Florida’s power play potential: “So many guys can make plays and can score. I’m sure they have 15 guys on the team that can play on either power play, so it’s a real good luxury to have.”
On the room: “Super guys. Great group of guys. Close-knit group. They like to have fun, but they put in the work. We’ve had a lot of laughs. It’s been great.”
On playing for Coach Q: “The guys absolutely love playing for this guy. He just keeps it simple. The guys rave about him, I’ve had him in the past and just loved him. I’m really looking forward to working with him.”
Quenneville on Thornton: “He gives you some versatility. Center, wing, faceoffs, experience, power play. That experience, and then his willingness to do everything he can to be a champion, it gives everybody excitement.”
Gudas on Thornton: “He’s a presence. Just him being around everybody, I think everybody had a little more juice. What he brings to the locker room on and off (the ice), it’s indescribable. Everybody wants to be around him. He a player everybody looks up to when they were younger, and now playing with him it’s like a dream come true.
“I’m happy he’s not gonna dangle me,” Gudas added. “It’s one of the first things I told him when he signed here.”
TRAINING CAMP NOTES
Quenneville said he’s hoping to have both Lundell and Thornton on the ice Thursday night in Tampa.
Regarding Thornton, Q said, “We’ll see how he handles the next day or two on the ice.”
As for other nicked up Panthers players, Quenneville said he’s thinking top line winger Carter Verhaeghe will be, “Probably ready to go Saturday.” Defenseman Gus Forsling also got a, “Probably Saturday” designation from Q.
Defenseman Lucas Carlsson skated on Monday, but Quenneville said, “He’s probably a week or two away.”
During special teams work on Monday, Quenneville deployed Lundell out with Florida’s penalty killing unit.
After practice, Q confirmed that he’s giving the rookie a good look in a very important role.
“If everything is all systems go and he starts here, he’s got a chance to be a killer.”
Quenneville had previously said that goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky would start two of the final three preseason games.
One of those two starts will be Tuesday when Florida faces the Lightning in Orlando.
Lastly, Quenneville was asked if he feels there is (finally) an official rivalry between Florida and Tampa Bay. His response was telling as to where the Panthers’ collective heads are at heading into a week of preseason rematches with the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season.
“It is for us,” he said flatly.