There was a lot of head scratching, skepticism, and even a fair share of ridicule following the 2013 NHL entry draft, particularly when it came to Dale Tallon and the Florida Panthers 2nd overall draft selection.
For the longest time, Seth Jones, defenseman of the Portland Winterhawks was the center of attention, the next Chris Pronger. After losing the draft lottery to the Colorado Avalanche, the Panthers seemed certain that they would end up with Nathan MacKinnon based on the Avalanche’s need at the defensive position, especially with a gem like Seth Jones slated to be chosen 1st overall. But soon after the draft lottery, attention shifted to Nathan MacKinnon, a speedy, skillful goal-scorer, who showed no mercy during the 2013 Memorial Cup. The Nova Scotia Native began receiving comparison’s to Sidney Crosby, and not just because they share the same hometown, either. Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic let the world know, Jones was no longer in the question, MacKinnon was whom they wanted.
This put the Panthers in a weird position. Knowing full well that Nathan MacKinnon was the center-man they so desperately needed, the only question left to ask was, then who? Seth Jones? Jonathan Drouin? Aleksander Barkov?
For a team that finished last place in the 2013 season, falling 30th in both goals for and goals against, it was obvious that the team could have used a little bit of everything. But with young guys like Mike Matheson, Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, Alex Petrovic, and several other talented blue-liners waiting to be selected that year, was Seth Jones really the guy? And with Jonathan Huberdeau, former Calder winner sharing similar characteristics to Jonathan Drouin of the QMJHL, did the Panthers really need another small, crafty winger?
When it comes to Dale Tallon, it’s no secret that he prefers big-bodied players, and Aleksander Barkov was just that. At just 17 years old at the time, Barkov stood 6’3, 210lbs. Sure, Nick Bjugstad’s 6’6, 215lbs. frame is ideal for a center, but does the former 1st round pick have the skill-set to be a future 1st line center? No one knows for sure. But what we do know is that Aleksander Barkov played for the SM-Liiga, the premiere professional hockey league in Finland, where he faced grown men night after night. With 48 points in 52 games, Barkov tallied the most points by anyone under 18 years old in the Finnish Elite league in a single season, beating Olli Jokinen’s previous record of 41 points. While it may have been unclear to the rest of the hockey world what the Panthers needed to solidify their future, Dale Tallon and the scouting staff knew exactly what that was, and who that person was going to be.
I’ve been following Barkov’s career for over a year now. As much as anyone in the league would kill for guys like Nathan MacKinnon or Seth Jones to don their teams’ colors, there was something about Barkov that intrigued me more than anyone else that draft year.
I have to admit, after talking Barkov’s value up for several months leading to the 2013-2014 season, I was quite nervous for the first puck drop of the Panthers’ season where they faced off against the Dallas Stars. Fortunately for Barkov, the Panthers, and my anxiety, the league’s youngest player scored the game-tying goal in his first NHL game, making him the youngest player to score a goal since 1942, sending the Panthers home with a 4-2 victory. The fun didn’t stop there. The Panthers first home game of the season was against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Clearly a tough match-up for the home team, but it didn’t phase Barkov. And that’s one of the many notable attributes to his game. He doesn’t get rattled, nor does he lack an ounce of confidence. Notching 3 points in that very game, Barkov became an instant fan favorite, and one of the calmest hockey players I’ve ever seen live.
41 games into his NHL career, and I am more impressed by his game than I ever thought I would be up to this point. While he has been compared to the likes of Anze Kopitar, his incredible size, vision, and hockey intelligence reminds me more and more of Ryan Getzlaf everyday.
As the youngest player currently in the NHL, Barkov brings a certain element to his game that makes the rookie look like a seasoned veteran. He can shield and protect the puck better than any 18 year old I’ve ever seen. He is always placid in front of traffic, and constantly using his size to his advantage, whether he’s parked in front of the net, or battling along the boards. But the one unique quality about Barkov that trumps all other characteristics is his ability to make plays happen. He sees the ice so well, which allows him to understand the play much easier than most. Whether he’s making a pass from the seat of his pants, a blind pass, or a crisp cross-ice pass, Barkov knows just how to get the puck in or around the perimeter of the net.
Adding to his offensive prowess and play-making abilities, his two-way play has been another notable element to his game, which has been catching the attention of Panthers’ faithful. While it’s always joked that anyone of Russian descent (aside from Datsyuk, of course), lacks any type of defensive bone in their body, Barkov, a dual citizen to both Finland and Russia, is without a doubt the most complete player amongst this years rookie class. Whether he’s breaking up a 2-on-1, playing responsible in his own end, or tracking a play perfectly, the defensive willingness Barkov possesses is unlike anything I’ve seen from someone his age.
Barkov has seen himself between 6 different line mates throughout the year and has managed to help each and every one of them succeed. Upshall, Boyes, and Bergenheim have put up their best numbers of the season while being paired with the 18-year-old. Luckily for the Panthers, the “Killer B’s” line is making a huge impact as of late. With 9 points in his past 10 games, Barkov has been the brightest spot not only in the last month, but also for the year. Tied for 2nd on the team in scoring with 19 points (7g-12a), it’s easy to point out the maturity and growth of Barkov’s game with each and every shift he takes.
Currently sitting in 9th place amongst NHL rookies in scoring, Barkov trails MacKinnon by a respectable 5 points, but is 1st amongst all rookies in face off wins, and 3rd in TOI for forwards. Unfortunately for Barkov, he doesn’t have the pizzazz and numbers that most media outlets would deem worthy for the Calder Trophy. As cellar dwellers in the Eastern Conference, it’s understandable the lack of respect Barkov receives. But, with 41 games remaining, there is still plenty of time for Barkov to prove his worth to the naysayers and non-believers. As someone who hasn’t missed a Panthers game this season, I feel without a doubt Barkov has not only been the Panthers most impactful player and mid-season MVP, but should be amongst those for the Calder consideration.
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