How Anton Lundell Earned the Florida Panthers’ Trust

Whether this is a banner year remains to be seen, but 2021-22 has been a great season for the 27-8-5 Florida Panthers thus far. Jonathan Huberdeau is challenging for the Art Ross Trophy, Aleksander Barkov is a Selke candidate, Aaron Ekblad is in the Norris conversation, MacKenzie Weegar is as effective as ever on the other side, Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair remain stellar reclamation projects and newcomer Sam Reinhart has fit in nicely.

Despite an early head coaching controversy, the Panthers have posted the third-highest points percentage in the league and look the part of a title contender. Seemingly everything has gone right for them. Hell, even Sergei Bobrovsky has rebounded to his Columbus Blue Jackets form.

A less talked-about but equally promising development has been, well, the development of rookie center Anton Lundell (24 points in 36 games).

Just 36 games into his career, the 2020 12th overall pick has already gained his coaching staff’s trust. Look at his deployment for proof: He averages more defensive faceoffs than anyone on the roster and logs more short-handed minutes per game than all but one forward…in the entire NHL. In case you forgot, he’s a freshman—and he hasn’t missed a beat since joining the big leagues. During his 5-on-5 shifts, the Panthers own 54.4% of the scoring chances, 51.6% of the expected goals and 63.0% of the actual goals.

A touch more possession wouldn’t hurt, but the 20-year-old’s ability to handle such heavy defensive usage is remarkable. His tools are evident every time he hops over the boards. He has good habits, sharp instincts and an endlessly active stick:

If you put the puck anywhere near Lundell, he’ll get his twig on it. That’s the mark of a premier defensive forward. In fact, he ranks third among forwards in takeaways per 60 minutes. That blows all of his teammates, including Barkov, out of the water. He seems to sniff out plays before they happen and intervenes at precisely the right moment.

And on a high-event team like Florida, a defensive stand often becomes an offensive chance:

The Panthers play at a maniacal tempo, and Lundell’s composure at the center position offers a nice counterpoint to their zeal. He defends from the net out and is always there to extinguish any fires that might flare up.

His impact isn’t restricted to the defensive zone, though. He quietly and diligently patrols the middle of the ice at both ends, supporting his defensemen on pinches, chipping in on the forecheck and providing a center drive to open up room for his teammates. And he does this while remaining on top of the puck. His positional discipline—especially for a rookie—is astounding.

Look at how Lundell routinely claims the correct depth and makes difficult plays under pressure:

It’s clear why interim head coach Andrew Brunette feels comfortable feeding the kid tough minutes. He’s deeply attuned to his responsibilities and plays selfless three-zone hockey. His only flaw at the moment is an unsightly 44.3 faceoff percentage. Keep in mind, however, that he’s soaking up experience in extremely defensive usage. Florida has thrown him directly into the fire, and outside of his proficiency at the dot, he’s fared quite well.

Now, as a first-round pick, you have to produce too. Thankfully, Lundell brings a solid offensive skill set to the table in addition to his complete game. He ranks sixth among rookies in points/60, and that’s with brutal deployment compared to the likes of Trevor Zegras, Lucas Raymond and Seth Jarvis.

Though he isn’t dictating the action, he displays the vision and feel required to set up his teammates in dangerous areas. He also possesses a powerful release that he hasn’t showcased the full extent of just yet. Moreover, he isn’t shy about crashing the net. His 6’1”, 185-pound frame isn’t anything special by NHL standards, but he looks rangier and more troublesome in the trenches than his actual size would suggest.

Perhaps his most impressive trait at the moment is his patience in tight. He doesn’t panic in the slot, instead assessing his options and playing chicken with goaltenders until they flinch first.

Here’s a taste of his well-rounded offensive arsenal:

While Lundell may not compete with the more electrifying members of his rookie class on the scoreboard, he still has more to give on the attack. Once he develops his grown-man strength and packs on an additional 10-15 pounds of mass, he’ll grow much more capable of fending off defenders and maneuvering through a congested neutral zone. He’ll find different ways of pulling the trigger. He’ll be more willing to seize control of proceedings.

You’ve probably heard the whispers that 2021-22 is Florida’s year. The Panthers are strong at every position group and firing on all cylinders at present.

Even if it isn’t, even if Brunette’s troops fall short in the end, Lundell’s polished and precocious game is providing cause for long-term optimism. A center trio of Barkov-Bennett-Lundell should prove downright terrifying for years to come.

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