When the Panthers announced they'd signed top prospect Anton Lundell to a three-year, entry-level contract on Monday, there was one person in particular that had been itching for the news.
"I was waiting for that," Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov excitedly told FloridaPanthers.com on Wednesday afternoon. "That didn't come as a surprise to me. He had a great year playing in the World Juniors, the Finnish league, and then he played unreal at the World Championship."
Taken by the Panthers with the 12th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, Lundell's path to his first NHL contract has mirrored Barkov's in many ways. Both players entered Liiga (the top league in Finland) at a young age, both were first-round picks, and both are known for their two-way play.
Heading into the 2021-22 season, Lundell now hopes to continue following in Barkov's footsteps by making the jump directly to the NHL and carving out a regular roster spot with the Panthers.
"There's a lot of good players and my goal is to take a spot on the roster," Lundell said during a Zoom teleconference from his home in Finland just a few days after the ink had dried on his new deal. "That's the first step: to show the coaches that I'm ready to play in the NHL next season."
While Lundell still has a lot to prove, it's hard not to get excited looking at his budding résumé.
Turning heads while capturing a pair of medals within the span of roughly six months, the 19-year-old center was simply a force at both ends of the ice on the international stage this year.
In January, he captained Finland to a bronze medal and finished third in tournament scoring with 10 points (six goals, four assists) at the U-20 World Junior Championship in Edmonton, including netting a pair of goals in a decisive 4-1 victory over Russia in the third-place game.
Later put to the test against grown men at the World Championship in Latvia this month, his production didn't skip a beat. Leaving with a silver medal, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound native of Espoo, Finland led his team in scoring yet again with seven points (four goals, three assists).
"It's been one year that I will always remember," Lundell said. "I've been able to win medals with every team that I've been paying with this year. That gives me a lot of confidence. Too bad we weren't able to win the gold, but we had a good year. I just tried to play my best game and show everyone how good I am and what level I can play at from game to game."
When he wasn't lighting up the competition internationally, Lundell produced at nearly a point-per-game pace during his third season in Liiga. Suiting up in 26 games with HIFK, he registered 25 points (16 goals, nine assists), not including one goal and two assists in eight playoff games.
As a partial owner of his hometown Liiga team in Tampere, Barkov said he managed to catch a few of Lundell's games this season on television. Of course, in between those games, he would also see plenty of highlights on social media whenever Lundell had an incredible goal or assist.
"I've watched him play, seen highlights, how many goals he's scored, the way he's playing," said Barkov, who the Panthers drafted second-overall in 2013. "He's 19 years old, but you can see he was born as a leader. He led the national junior team to a bronze medal, and now the same thing for the World Championship. We're really lucky to have him in our organization."
With training camp likely not getting underway until September, Lundell said he plans to spend the next few weeks resting up after a long season before getting back to work and eventually hopping a flight to South Florida sometime in August. Also planning to spend the summer in Finland, Barkov said there's a chance that the two could potentially connect at some point.
Coming off the best season of his career, Lundell said he knows the value of offseason work.
"I think that was the key for this season," Lundell said of intense training regime last summer. "I was in good shape and I think I did get more muscle, and it helped me in the game and I was stronger, faster. I had more confidence and it was really good to see that hard work pays off."
As for Barkov, he's eager to get to see what Lundell can do up close.
"He's really fun to watch," Barkov said. "I'm really looking forward to seeing him at camp."