There is no question who the top center for the Florida Panthers is, but they may have found their No. 2 on Tuesday when they drafted top Finnish prospect Anton Lundell.
Lundell, 19, has said Sasha Barkov is one of his favorite players and now — or at least soon — the two will be teammates on the Panthers.
Following the draft, Florida GM Bill Zito said Lundell would finish his season (which is three games old) with HIFK in the Finnish elite league.
“I was really excited to be drafted by the Panthers, I know the Finnish players there and have been following them,” Lundell said after Florida took him with the 12th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.
As for Barkov, Lundell said “he is one of the best players in the league and it’s going to be really fun.”
Barkov, who is a part-owner of the Tampere squad in Lundell’s league, appears to be a fan of Lundell as well.
When contacted after the draft, Barkov responded that he was surprised Florida got him at No. 12.
“He is a pretty solid two-way player,” Barkov said, “has a good head about the game.
“I wasn’t thinking he would drop to us. I thought he would go in the top 10.”
Zito said Florida liked “the completeness” of Lundell’s overall game as he is a player who is responsible defensively and also can be a high-end offensive player.
Kind of like, well, Barkov.
“You hear about a 200-foot game and to me, that’s a hockey player,’’ Zito said.”He’s somebody who competes in all areas of the game and one of the hallmarks of Anton is his compete.
“He enjoys hockey, loves to play, wants to win. Without putting too much pressure on him … he’s the kind of player we want to bring into the Florida Panthers; someone who will do the little things, wants to play in all areas of the ice.”
This was a most different draft setup than anyone is used to as it usually held in June.
Most players come to the draft city (this year was supposed to be held in Montreal) after not having played in a few weeks or months.
For Lundell, that was not the case.
On Tuesday, his HIFK squad picked up a 3-1 Liiga victory over Lahti. Lundell assisted on Jere Sallinen’s second goal of the night, the final score in the win.
After the game, Lundell went to dinner with family and friends to celebrate the win as well as the upcoming draft.
Lundell watched the draft from the arena in Helsinki with about 20 well-wishers — including his dad Jan who is the former longtime goalie for HIFK who is now the team’s goalie coach.
“It was really fun to share this day with them,’’ he said. “My family has helped me so much both growing up and in my hockey career. To share this day with them made it special for everyone.”
It was a long, long day. By the time he was drafted, it was just about 3:30 a.m. local time.
Being a first round draft pick should lead to a celebratory breakfast if nothing else.
“It has been a really fun day and I think I will remember this day for a long time,” he said in a video conference with the South Florida media about an hour after he was selected.
“It was easy to play (Tuesday) because you just try and forget everything that’s going on and try and win for the team. It was fun getting the win today. It makes this day even better.”
From Finland, with Love
The Panthers have been no strangers to drafting players from Finland over the years, with Jari Kekolainen — Florida’s Head of European Scouting — having a rather large say in the Panthers’ draft strategy.
Kekolainen was a big proponent of Florida taking Barkov second overall in 2013 and that move has worked out quite well for the Panthers.
“He deserves the credit fo really doing the work in going the extra mile and knowing Anton,” Zito said of Kekalainen, the younger brother of Zito’s former boss, Columbus GM Jarmo.
“I guess you could ay he argued his case, stood up and said ‘this is the player we want, the young man who possesses the culture, compete and character.’ This is a guy we want to plug into our model. He is the type of player we want on the type of team we want to create.”
Not only has Barkov evolved into the one of the best two-way centers in the NHL, but he has been captain of the Panthers since 2018.
When Florida drafted Barkov in 2013, they needed a center who could play right away what with the team being sold and there being no money to resign free agent Stephen Weiss.
While Barkov did not assume the top center position right away, he was in that spot by his second season.
Like Lundell, the Panthers drafted Barkov out of the top pro league in Finland.
One main reason the Panthers drafted Barkov was because he looked right at home playing against bigger, stronger and more mature professional players.
Lundell may only be 19, but he is now in his third season playing for Finland’s FIHK. He looks like he belongs. The team thinks so much of him, he is an alternate captain.
“I think it is a really good thing that I have been playing against men,’’ Lundell said about playing for HIFK where he will soon be teammates with Florida center Henrik Borgstrom (a first-round pick in 2016).
“I think I am more ready for the next step, in the future. There are really good players, NHL players too. This is a really good thing for me.’’
Added Barkov: “Playing against men really helps a lot. And, he is playing for a great organization as well. They always have great players and he is their No. 1 center. That tells you a lot.”
Although Lundell may not be ready to slide into Florida’s current vacancy at 2C right now, it is possible he would in a short time.
And perhaps be there for a long time.
“It’s important to bring the players along at the right pace … when they’re ready,” Zito said. “At the conclusion of his season, we will see where he is. It’s important not to rush him … he’s playing in a men’s league, I know, but you don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself.
“Putting a timetable isn’t fair to him. Let him play hockey, have fun, develop. When he’s ready, he’ll come. To say he’s one year, two years … we’re going to let it happen naturally.”