Santtu Kinnunen spent most of last month's development camp sharpening his English skills.
A seventh-round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2018, the 20-year-old defenseman was the lone Finnish-born skater in attendance at the four-day camp at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs, a role he was happy to embrace after being a part of a sizeable Finnish contingent last summer.
Following the camp's conclusion, Kinnunen joked he'd "only speak English" when he got home.
"It's my second year, so I've been really comfortable talking to people now compared to last year," said Kinnunen, a native of Lahti, Finland. "It's been really fun being the only Finn here. I've been making a lot of new friends, and it's been an awesome time. Compared to last year, my practices were much better, and the scrimmage was more physical and stuff. I like that."
While he continues to expand his English vocabulary, Kinnunen plans to spend the upcoming season back in Finland, working to earn a full-time roster spot in the country's top-professional league, Liiga. Making his Liiga debut during the 2018-19 campaign with his hometown club, the Lahti Pelicans, he accumulated seven points (one goal, six assists) during a solid 27-game stint.
In addition to getting a taste of the professional game in Liiga, he also suited up in 34 combined regular-season games with Pelicans U-20 team and with Peliitat of Mestis, Finland's second-tier league. In those contests, he posted 20 points (three goals, 17 assists) and 49 penalty minutes.
"It was pretty good," Kinnunen said of time in Liiga. "I got a lot of men's games in. It's a whole different experience than juniors. It's been good to get to play. Hopefully next year I'm going to play better and much more. I want to take the next step and really break out in the league."
In order to make that next step, Kinnunen believes he needs to improve in a few areas.
"I need to get more strength and more physical," said Kinnunen, who measured at 6-foot-2 and 154 pounds when he was drafted by the Panthers a little over a year ago. "I need to be better on my puck skills. I have really good puck skills, but I need to be better at the step-out."
Panthers Director of Player Personnel Bryan McCabe agrees that size is something Kinnunen will need to continue to build up over the coming seasons before he's ready to challenge for a spot with Florida or AHL Springfield down the line. That said, he likes the progress he's seeing.
"He's definitely put some weight on. It's noticeable," McCabe said. "He was much more confident this year. It's always tough for guys coming overseas. He's definitely made some strides over the past year."
After speaking with the Pelicans coaching staff, McCabe said that the Finnish club is excited about what Kinnunen could potentially "bring to the table on a full-time basis" in 2019-20.
"He's an offensive guy that can move pucks and play on the power play," McCabe said. "We're looking for him to be a regular over there in the men's league this year and just keep growing."
As for keeping up with his English, Kinnunen said he's found a good way to keep in touch with his new North American friends and fellow Panthers prospects while he's still living overseas.
"I added a couple friends on Snapchat," he smiled.