SUNRISE, Fla. – When Florida Panthers General Manager Bill Zito spoke about Anton Lundell prior to the season, he couldn’t help but smile.
Zito knew what the Panthers were getting in the rookie, and it was impossible not to show some excitement.
It’s the same reaction that Lundell’s coaches and teammates have had when asked about the 20-year-old phenom as the season has progressed.
Wide eyes, smiles and heads shaking in disbelief.
Sure, those outside of South Florida may not have been talking about the young Finn, but that’s okay.
He was like the Panthers best kept secret.
Guys that young don’t usually play at the highest level in the world, let alone excel in the areas of the game that veterans will tell you are the hardest to find consistent success.
Well, that’s exactly what Lundell has done, and now Florida’s secret is out.
On Tuesday the NHL named Lundell the Rookie of the Month for January.
His five assists during Monday night’s 8-4 win in Columbus may have had something to do with that.
“It was amazing to play today, one night that I will remember,” Lundell said afterwards.
Indeed, it was quite an exclamation point to end an impressive month for the freshman.
In 15 January games, Lundell led all NHL rookies with 14 assists and 17 points.
His offensive production and defensive presence helped Florida to go 12-2-1 since the calendar flipped to 2022, keeping them atop the NHL standings.
That’s the thing about Lundell, it’s not just that he’s able to produce and put up points.
He’s as well-rounded a player as a coach could ask for, a true 200-fooot center that plays just as smart in his own zone as he does while on offense.
Sure, it was a little surprising to see a first year player getting reps on the penalty killing unit right out of the gate. Did I do a double take the first time I saw Lundell taking a defensive zone faceoff during the final minute of a game with the Panthers protecting a lead? It’s possible.
What is becoming more and more clear as the season goes on is that Zito hit one out of the park when they snagged Lundell 12th overall during the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.
Florida has had one of the world’s best two-way centers on its roster for nearly a decade in Sasha Barkov, and now it appears the Panthers have Barkov’s second coming.
“You can see he’s taking steps every game, every practice,” Barkov said of Lundell last week. “He has that enthusiasm to learn something new every day about hockey and about how to play here. You can see how good he is getting.”
FIRST STAR FOR THE ALL-STAR
Lundell’s Rookie of the Month honors weren’t the only props the NHL bestowed upon the Panthers Tuesday.
The league also announced its Three Stars of the Month, and Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau was front and center as the NHL’s First Star of the Month for January.
Florida’s lone All-Star selection had a monster January, leading all players with 19 assists and 25 points to propel himself to the top of the NHL’s scoring leaderboard.
When the month began, Huberdeau was 14 points behind then-scoring leader Connor McDavid.
Entering Tuesday’s games, Huberdeau leads all NHL players with 63 points.
“It’s cool to be on top,” he said after Monday’s win in Columbus, “but for us, it’s just to win some games. Individual stuff is fun, but it’s more about the team and I’m happy we’re doing well.”
It was quite a January for Huberdeau and the Panthers, as Florida won 12 games in a month for the first time in franchise history and Huberdeau picked up at least a point in 13 of the team’s 15 games.
He had a four-point outing against Dallas on Jan. 14 and not one, not two but three different three-point games (Jan 1. vs. Montreal, Jan. 23 at Seattle and Jan. 29 vs. San Jose). He also started the month with a seven-game points streak during which he racked up four goals and 11 assists.
Huberdeau will be the only Panthers player participating in the NHL All-Star Game, which is coming up on Saturday night in Las Vegas.