As the league continues only gets faster, we see a natural gravitation towards prospects who can skate at blazing speeds in the draft process. Last year’s first overall pick Jack Hughes is practically the defintion of dynamic. Offence generating players have already become the NHL’s norm and the general pace of play should only get faster as older players who debuted in different eras of hockey phase out and are replaced by the new wave of fast-twitch stars, but with scouts focusing in on foot speed as one of the most crucial tools in a top prospect, there might be somewhat of a tendency to cast a rather narrow lens towards the top draft prospects each year, focusing only on speedy attackers that excel off the rush and falling blind to players who aren’t quite as fast but have a history of success in today’s fast game across all levels regardless.
Anton Lundell and Cole Perfetti seem to be the two prospects this year who receive the most flak from critics keyed in on their skating. I don’t think either are deserving of some of the criticism they recieve: I’ve personally seen Lundell made out to almost be the Martin Marincin of forwards by some people. Despite what some might hyperbolize, Lundell and Perfetti are both above-average skaters who admittedly don’t stack up to the elite-level quickness of players like Lucas Raymond, Tim Stutzle, and Jamie Drysdale in this class, but get around just fine relative to the players around them. Will they blow by a defender coming down the wing? Rarely, if ever. But they’re smart enough to gain the zone and keep backcheckers off their tail, and neither rely on rush opportunities to power their offence anyway.
We’re going to focus on Anton Lundell here, one of my favourite players in the draft. Allow me to make my case for why I don’t expect his mobility to prevent him from reaching his ceiling as a ~60-70 point top-line pivot.
Naturally, we have to start with his skating. I saw someone classify Lundell as something like “the worst all-around skater of projected first rounders in this draft”, a truly ridiculous assertation. Lundell is a powerful skater with a very north-south style: he doesn’t have that four way lateral attack that is becoming common, instead using wide powerful strides to generate straight-line speed through the neutral zone. He doesn’t have quick feet and can be a little sluggish to get to top speed, but I don’t like the assertation that he’s a below-average skater.
— Juha Rapanen (@jrabane) November 1, 2019
You can see that here as Lundell goes from his defensive zone to the attacking third on the rush. His lack of explosiveness is quite evident– he doesn’t create separation from the backchecker, who nearly catches him by the end– but he gets up ice quickly enough to make the play and record the assist. That’s the way I expect Lundell’s mobility to be at the NHL level: he’s quick enough to make the play, but he won’t be creating space for himself with his speed on a very consistent basis.
— Juha Rapanen (@jrabane) September 27, 2019
There are times, albeit infrequent, where Lundell can get a jump on a defender with his skating and his movement will look like more a strength. He gets a step on a defender wide here and roofs a beauty from a bad angle.
Speaking of bad angle snipes, here’s another one:
— Juha Rapanen (@jrabane) February 21, 2020
I don’t like when people write Lundell off as a low-upside player just because of his average skating abilities. It’s an easy uneducated assumption. Why is skating an important skill? Because it’s a tool that allows a player to be more efficient in all three zone, it allows players to create/take away space around the puck, and it allows players to play at different paces. When someone immediately writes a player off for a lack of high-end skating ability, they’re ignoring every other way that a player can create space– intelligence, the threat of a shot, quick hands– as well as devaluing players who excel at facilitating under pressure and don’t require the space-creating abilities of the typical player to produce offence at an impressive rate. Lundell is a classic case of this: analysts putting all their stock into a player’s skating ability without understanding why that mobility is generally so important and the secondary methods that a player can create that space or produce offence without as much space as would be ideal. It is also important to note that this year’s Art Ross Trophy winner was down played for his lack of skating abilities in his draft year, however he learned to use other elements of his game whilst improving his foot speed after his draft year to be a world class dominating player in the NHL.
It’s especially interesting to me that people can be so quick to write off Lundell’s offensive ability when he put up outstanding numbers as an 18 year old in the world’s fourth or fifth best professional league. If he’s quick enough to
Lundell is one of the smartest players in the draft, quite possibly the most intelligent. The most notable facet of his IQ shows on the defensive side of the game, where Lundell displays exceptional defensive positioning and provides support to his defencemen on a near-constant basis. His brain is active offensively too, where he’s seemingly always in the right space at the right time and has a fantastic ability to fade out of high-danger areas and dart back in just in time to capitalize on a pocket of open space in the slot. His vision is seriously underrated when people question his upside: anybody with that kind of sense for their teammates has serious playmaking upside.
Just look at this play right here.
— 51Leafs (@51Leafs) March 9, 2020
There are players that just demand the puck and always seem to be around it in the offensive zone. Lundell isn’t one of those players– he’s perfectly content to operate as more of an off-puck facilitator, only providing support and until he spots an opportunity to cut into the slot for a pass. He likes to fade out to the top of the offensive zone, where the defence will leave him as a non-threat and then slash into the slot a step ahead of a defender when the opportunity presents himself. He does that in the play above, dropping off to the top of the circle before cutting inside and delivering an incredible behind-the-back pass to a teammate at the backdoor. That’s two elements of his offensive IQ right there: his ability to find space for himself offensively and his playmaking vision.
The most visible facet of Lundell’s intelligence is his constant puck support. Whether it’s offensively or defensively, the Finnish centre is consistently in position to assist and provide reinforcement to his teammates. Here’s an offensive example:
First off– note the forechecking ability. Lundell is fast enough with the size and reach to be a real nuisance on the forecheck. After forcing a turnover, he drops the puck off to a teammate and loops to the top of the offensive zone to provide support. He ends up in the perfect spot to collect the puck when his teammate runs out of space and lasers it home from the high slot.
As shown above, that support is present in transition as well. As a centre, support is a key part of his responsibilities in transition. He begins low on the zone and moves towards the far wall as the puck moves up the boards. When the opposing defender steps up on Lundell’s winger, the Finn is right there to skate onto the loose puck. This play is another example of how his skating is proficient enough to operate offensively, he’s quick enough to collect the loose puck and get a step on the opposing team on the break. And finally, he finishes the play off with his excellent shot off the rush.
We’ll get to the defensive element of his support later– let’s get the offensive side of the game out of the way and focus on his shot first. Lundell is a very balanced attacker, capable of creating as both a scorer and playmaker, but the lethality of his shot off the rush was probably the most consistent element of his offensive profile this past year. The centre potted ten goals for HIFK and several of them came from quite high in the zone right off of the zone entry. Here a few examples:
That’s an NHL-calibre shot. He’s eighteen years old and he’s capable of beating Liiga-level goalies off of one foot from medium danger areas. That’s impressive. And Lundell is already quite well-defined physically, but I’d expect his NHL playing weight to surpass 200 pounds and that additional strength should add even more weight to his shot. The Finn projects as a dangerous scoring threat at the top level: he’s hazardous shooting off the stride on the rush, he has the size and attack mentality to finish opportunities around the crease, and he excels at shooting off two feet from the slot, including from tight angles like we saw earlier. I think he has upside as a really versatile scoring threat: we didn’t see a ton of scoring from him (an common characteristic for 18 year olds in professional leagues), but he has the finishing talent and sense for space in the slot to find himself in position to bury a ton of goals as an NHL player. He probably could have scored far more than he actually did for HIFK, converting on only a little more than 6% of shots despite averaging 3.68 shots/game. Lundell seemed to have a bit of an unlucky scoring year, scoring only one more marker than last year despite upping his shot generation of a per game basis by 0.89 opportunities on goal per match. The shot generation is the more important figure here: that many shots per game as an 18 year old in a challenging environment is super promising. Expect the Finn to continue to churn out shots at higher levels.
Let’s talk defence. Lundell is the best defensive forward in the draft, playing an extremely responsible game in his own zone. He’s almost like a third defenceman, always in a position down low to support his defenceman while still being able to get up ice and contribute offensively. Look no further than this play here.
I love this sequence from Anton Lundell (#2020NHLDraft) where he covers for his defender and then scores off the rush. His stride seems to lack power towards the end but he is at the end of a decent length shift. pic.twitter.com/lkYoxsOUn9
— Tony Ferrari (@theTonyFerrari) July 23, 2019
Lundell is right in position as the puck gets by his pinching defenceman and instantly starts the transition back up ice, eventually scoring on the rush. The value of Lundell’s defensive game goes beyond his individual contributions in his own zone– they allow his entire team, especially the defencemen, to take more liberties offensively knowing that they always have support. The blueliners are free to pinch more aggressively to extend offensive possessions as well as step up in transition and attempt to separate body from puck knowing that Lundell will be there to back them up. The result: longer offensive possessions, more opportunities, and ultimately, more goals.
Lundell’s all-around impact is profound. HIFK absolutely dominated the shot share with the young Finn on the ice, controlling nearly 62% of the shot attempts– the second best rate in the Liiga behind only Jesse Puljujarvi. He was a player his team could depend on in the midst of tight games, posting a 61.6% shot attempt share when the game was within one goal during the first two periods or tied in the final frame. He was relatively unlucky on offence– only 8.6% of his team’s shots became goals when Lundell was on the ice– which may explain a lower individual offensive output on Lundell’s compared to the absolute dominance that he posted possession-wise. Say what you want about his dynamism or offensive upside, but the fact of the matter is that Lundell’s team controls the puck more often that not with him on the ice which ultimately leads to more team offence and more wins, even if Lundell isn’t blowing anyone away with flashy plays or crazy skill while he impacts the game. Value is value, regardless of how aesthetic the process is.
Lundell is the type of player that every team should strive to possess: a possible perennial Selke nominee who impacts the game in all facets and could potentially contribute offensively to the tune of 60+ points a season. He isn’t a dynamic skater, but he’s super intelligent and excels at not only finding pockets of space to work offensively but also at making plays with defenders on his back. The centre has excellent vision as a playmaker and a threatening shot off the rush, forming a dangerous dual-threat offensive talent that should be a legitimate offensive threat at the NHL level. He’s also one of the most developed two-way players that you’ll find in any draft, providing valuable puck support all over the ice that allows his linemates to take more risks and play a more offensively-geared, high-paced game without the consequences that usually accompany the style. Even if Lundell’s offensive game doesn’t fully pan out, he should be a stellar all-defensive player with excellent possession impacts that can stabilize an entire forward corps. If he makes improvements as a skater and adds a more dynamic element of his offensive game, he could be a dominant two-way force as a top line centre with 70 points a season in addition to his near-flawless defensive game. In a draft class with tons of dynamic forward talent it’s easy to sleep on a player with a quieter game like Lundell, but the Finn could easily rival and even surpass the impacts of players like Marco Rossi, Cole Perfetti, and Alexander Holtz even if it’s in a less visible form.