(Editor’s note: On Dec. 2, the board of directors of the Finnish Ice Hockey League suspended play in Liiga, Finland’s top professional league, through Dec. 19 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.)
Anton Lundell, a forward selected by the Florida Panthers with the No. 12 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, could be playing in the NHL a lot sooner than later.
“Our development staff puts out a questionnaire for our kids after the draft to kind of get to know them and one question is, ‘How far away do you think you are from playing in the NHL?,'” said Panthers vice president of player personnel & development Gregory Campbell. “Sometimes, guys we might think are a little bit further away might say, ‘I can play in the NHL next year.’ It gives us an idea of where their minds are at and their confidence level, whether it’s warranted or not.
“[Lundell] actually said he thinks he could play now. In his mind, he’s ready.”
Campbell said he feels Lundell’s self-assessment isn’t too far-fetched. In 16 games this season with HIFK in Liiga, Finland’s top professional men’s league, Lundell (6-foot-1, 185 pounds) ranks fourth in scoring with 20 points (12 goals, eight assists) and is averaging 19:17 of ice time as an alternate captain.
“I had a very good summer with hard training,” Lundell said. “I have tried to shoot more and be more effective this season. I feel faster and stronger, which helps me to win more one-on-one situations and create more offensive chances.”
The 19-year-old center, born in Espoo, Finland, is in his third season in Liiga.
“He’ll have to come over and put in the minutes and do the work, but with his production so far in the way he’s played, there’s no reason why we don’t believe, as a staff, that he’s ready to play, or at least ready for the opportunity,” Campbell said. “Even when you break his game down, it’s not just the offensive contributions. He’s actually a really smart player, a real defensive-minded, conscious player. He’s all over the ice trying to support his teammates. He’s been the complete package so far.”
The Panthers will loan him to Finland for participation in the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship, and Lundell hopes to make up for lost time when he joins his country for the second time in three years. He scored four points (one goal, three assists) in seven games to help Finland to a first-place finish in 2019 but missed the 2020 tournament with an upper-body injury.
“It’s a big honor to represent my own country in the World Juniors,” Lundell said. “I want to be a leader for our team and help the team to win games and succeed.”
Lundell said before the 2020 draft that he watches a lot of Panthers center Aleksander Barkov. Campbell said he sees similarities between the two.
“With his 200-foot game, and the fact that he can produce,” Campbell said. “[Lundell] is a well-rounded player as far as he can score, and he can also make plays. But when I break down his game, watch videos, you gain an appreciation for his defensive awareness and smarts.”
Four other NHL prospects currently playing well in Finland:
Roni Hirvonen, F, Assat
A second-round pick (No. 59) by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2020 draft, Hirvonen has scored nine points (five goals, four assists) with a 53.7 face-off winning percentage (268 face-offs taken) while averaging 15:40 of ice time in 21 games. The 18-year-old (5-9, 164 pounds) ranked second in Liiga among all under-19 aged skaters last season with 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 52 games.
Urho Vaakanainen, D, SaiPa
The 21-year-old, on loan with SaiPa since Nov. 23, has scored one goal and is plus-2 while averaging 22:38 of ice time in two games. Vaakanainen (6-1, 185), chosen No. 18 by the Boston Bruins in the 2017 NHL Draft, played five NHL games last season, but none after Nov. 21. Concussions limited Vaakanainen to two games for the Bruins in 2018-19, but he is projected to be a top-four defenseman, perhaps as early as this season.
Lauri Pajuniemi, F, TPS
The 21-year-old, selected by the New York Rangers in the fifth round (No. 132) of the 2018 NHL Draft, is in his fourth season in Liiga. Pajuniemi (6-0, 196 pounds) has scored six points (four goals, two assists) and two power-play goals with 44 shots on goal while averaging 15:26 of ice time in 11 games for TPS.
Emil Bemstrom, F, HIFK
Bemstrom was returned to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Nov. 30 after his loan agreement with HIFK expired. The 21-year-old (6-0, 190 pounds), selected in the fourth round (No. 117) of the 2017 draft, ranked second on HIFK with 17 points (eight goals, nine assists) in 16 games, averaging 17:49 of ice time in Liiga. He scored 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) in 56 games for the Blue Jackets last season.
Five other NHL prospects to keep an eye on:
Lias Andersson (Los Angeles Kings), F, HV71: The 22-year-old (6-1, 190), the No. 7 pick by the Rangers in the 2017 draft and traded to the Kings on Oct. 7 for a second-round pick in the 2020 draft, has scored 10 points (four goals, six assists) and averaged 16:48 of ice time in 15 games in the Swedish Hockey League, Sweden’s top professional men’s league.
Pavel Dorofeyev (Vegas Golden Knights), F, Medvedi Chelyabinsk: The 20-year-old (6-1, 167) scored four points (three goals, one assist) in seven games to help Russia finish second at the 2020 World Junior Championship. He has scored four points (two goals, two assists) in two games for Medvedi Chelyabinsk in Russia’s minor hockey league. Dorofeyev was chosen in the third round (No. 79) of the 2019 NHL Draft.
Daniil Chechelev (Calgary Flames), G, HC Ryazan: The 19-year-old (6-3, 187), selected in the fourth round (No. 96) of the 2020 draft, was 10-1-0 with a 2.00 goals-against average and .938 save percentage in 11 games for Russkie Chekhov in Russia’s minor hockey league before being assigned to HC Ryazan in the Supreme Hockey League (6-3-2, 2.59 GAA, .915 save percentage), Russia’s second-highest professional men’s league.
Kirill Marchenko (Blue Jackets), F, SKA St. Petersburg: The 20-year-old has scored 18 points (10 goals, eight assists) and three power-play goals in 26 games in the Kontinental Hockey League this season. Marchenko (6-3, 187) was selected in the second round (No. 49) of the 2018 draft.
Filip Zadina (Detroit Red Wings), F, Ocelari Trinec: The No. 6 pick in the 2018 draft has scored 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in 14 games on loan in the Czech league. The 21-year-old (6-0, 189) scored 15 points (eight goals, seven assists) in 28 games for the Red Wings last season.