It is not very often that a late-round prospect gets praise from an NHL superstar, but 2018 seventh-round pick Santtu Kinnunen was on the radar of the star of his future Florida Panthers.
The 6-foot-2, 162-pound defenseman won the Finnish Elite League with Tappara Tampere, notching two assists in 13 postseason games.
“It was amazing,” Kinnunen said.
“Tampere is a big hockey city in Finland and it has two teams so it is a rivalry. When we won, it was amazing. Everyone was downtown partying so it was amazing.”
One of the biggest names Tampere has produced was Panthers star Sasha Barkov.
Not only was Barkov a former member of Tappara, but he is also a part owner of the team.
The Panthers’ captain has been thrilled with Kinnunen’s development since he arrived at Tappara in 2020.
“Over the last few years, he has been stepping up a lot in his game,” Barkov said.
“The physical part, the mental part, he’s becoming a leader on the defense for that team. It’s been fun to watch them ever since he got there and you can see him growing in height and in being a leader.
“He’s physical too. He’s really good with the puck, he makes really good plays on the power play, he has a good shot, he’s a good passer, so I’m excited for him.”
Kinnunen, unaware of the praise Barkov had for him, was shocked upon hearing about it.
“I didn’t hear that he’s been talking about me,” the 23-year-old defenseman said.
“It’s amazing that he is watching the games. It means a lot that he has seen me play and has a liking for my game.”
Barkov could be seeing more of Kinnunen’s game pretty soon.
After putting up 23 points (four goals, 19 assists) in 53 games in Finland, he is headed to North America next season.
He signed an entry-level contract with the Panthers in May and is likely to start the season in the AHL.
Upon his arrival to Charlotte, Kinnunen looks to adjust to the North American game.
“I’m going to be playing on a smaller rink,” Kinnunen said.
“It’s going to be a different game here, so I need to adjust for the game and work on the small things and add a little strength.”
While the competition for a spot on Florida’s blue line is seemingly open with MacKenzie Weegar now gone, Kinnunen is on the outside looking in for now.
Unless he makes some major strides during training camp, fellow young defensemen Matt Kiersted, John Ludvig and Calle Sjallin are all more likely to challenge veterans Michael Del Zotto and Marc Staal for a roster spot.
With Florida’s right side of its defense locked in with Aaron Ekblad, Brandon Montour and Radko Gudas, the right-shot Kinnunen finds himself at a disadvantage to his lefthanded counterparts listed above.
Still, he looks forward to the day he gets to play with Barkov.
“It would be unreal,” Kinnunen said. “He is a top player in the NHL and it would be amazing to play with him.”