SUNRISE — Former Finnish elite league star Anton Levtchi is expected to make his NHL debut for the Florida Panthers on Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens.
But what should they expect from him?
Their expectation is pretty simple.
“I want him to shoot the puck because he can,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.
“That will be a bit of a challenge for him. New guys come up and there is a bit more of a passing mentality in the European game and he can pass but he’s here because he can shoot the puck.”
The 27-year-old proved he could do just that when he led Liiga in goals (26) and points (61) in 55 games as he helped lead Tappara Tampere to a league title last season.
Those numbers have not translated to the North American game just yet, but he will have some help making the necessary adjustments at the NHL level from a familiar face.
Levtchi came through the Tappara system alongside Panthers captain and current part-owner Sasha Barkov.
The two met each other for the first time when they were just 3.
“It is like your own brother is debuting for the same team, so it’s special for me to see him in the locker room,” Barkov said.
“It is one of those things you remember throughout your career that you play with the guy you grew up with. So I’m really excited for him. He is a really skilled guy.”
Through all of the years Barkov spent playing with Levtchi, what stands out the most to him about Levtchi is his ability to read plays.
“He has a high hockey IQ,” Barkov said.
“He sees the plays that not too many guys see. He is a really skilled guy and you never know what he is going to do. He can shoot the puck and he is really good offensively.”
It looked like that skill level translated to the AHL level pretty quickly after he notched four multi-point games and 12 points in his first 13 games.
But his production faltered to that of just one assist in his next 11.
With the big club still facing injury troubles with Anthony Duclair and Patric Hornqvist out of the lineup, Maurice hopes this trip up to the NHL level provides a boost to his adjustment to the North American game.
“The game is completely different over here,” Maurice said.
“He is an older pro, so he has more years ingrained in a certain style of game, so it takes those guys a little bit longer at times to find the holes. It’s almost a completely different sport for the younger guys coming in who have never seen it and for the older guys, it’s ingrained in them.
“You have to give them some time to get a feel for the speed of it. The game really doesn’t slow down much in the National League — other than some regroups and some line changes, it’s a full-sprint game — whereas in Europe, there are a whole bunch of places on the ice that you would never forecheck and never sprint because of the size of the ice. That’s a challenge for these guys.”
Maurice has made that goal all the more easier by putting him next to Anton Lundell and Sam Reinhart, two players who will open up the game for Levtchi and feed him the puck in the scoring areas.
Lundell and Reinhart each are very responsible in the defensive zone and are playmakers who have allowed their linemates to thrive in the past.
“I like to play with Reinhart a lot,” Lundell said.
“We know what role we have and where we are on the ice, so we are just going to try to feed him the puck.”
Most notably, Mason Marchment blossomed into a near-20 goal scorer in 54 games spending most of the season next to them before earning a big contract with the Dallas Stars in the offseason.
Lundell and the Panthers are hoping that Levtchi could be the next linemate to find success and stick.
“He is a great passer, he has a good shot, he competes, so he has everything we need,” Lundell said.
“It’s just all about the execution. We need to go out there and play our game, be aggressive and throw some pucks on the net.”
On top of providing a line with chemistry, Lundell also helps Levtchi in multiple ways.
For one, Lundell just made the transition from the Finnish game to the NHL game last year, putting up 44 points in 65 games in his rookie campaign after having a near-point-per-game season in Liiga a year prior.
He also helps bridge a language barrier for Levtchi, joining Barkov and Eetu Luostarinen as the Finnish speakers within the Panthers’ locker room.
“I think he knows what it takes,” Lundell said.
“The game is a little faster, but overall, he needs to play to his strengths and enjoy it. He is a good player, he knows how to play, it’s just about going out there and having fun.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
MONTREAL CANADIENS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 3-1
- All-time regular season series: Florida leads 51-38-11, 6 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Dec. 30 at Carolina Hurricanes, 7:30 p.m.