A year removed from his rookie campaign, Aleksander Barkov continues to be a force to be reckoned with on the ice for the Florida Panthers. After a knee injury during the Olympics cut the season short last February for the now 19-year-old forward, expectations for this season were moderate. How did he fare? Will he still become the number one center that Florida has lacked in years prior? Read on as we take a look at Barkov’s sophomore season in the NHL.
Aleksander Barkov started off the season playing on the Panthers’ top line, centering Jonathan Huberdeau and newly-acquired Jussi Jokinen. The Panthers were hoping that Barkov could provide the same offensive output as he did prior to his injury last season and then some, but much to their dismay, the line struggled. He spent most of last season with Sean Bergenheim and Brad Boyes, the latter of which had a career year offensively, and the line received the nickname, “The Killer B’s,” since their last names start with the letter “B.” The line provided most of the Panthers’ offense, however, they were unable to rekindle that same chemistry when reunited early on in the season.
Barkov scored his first goal of the season on a cross-ice pass from rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad in game #6 against Colorado, and he wouldn’t get his first assist until 6 games later against the Islanders on a goal by Brian Campbell. Barkov missed his first two games of the year following an injury he sustained in the 3rd period against Arizona on October 30th. Through November 26th and 17 games played, he totaled just 3 points, including 2 goals and 1 assist, leaving many Panther fans worried. He missed another 6 games in December after he was injured while blocking a shot on the penalty kill against Columbus. With Dave Bolland missing nearly two months of hockey at the beginning of the season, Barkov was forced to play a more defensive role than both coach Gallant and Barkov would’ve probably liked. However, despite this, and despite being in an offensive slump, Barkov continued to get the job done defensively, and his offense started to come alive when the calendar turned to 2015. He capped off 2014 with a game-winning, one-handed backhander in the shootout versus Marc-Andre Fleury on December 22nd.
After an underwhelming 2014 in which he produced 2 goals and 4 assists in 26 games, Barkov went on to put up 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists) in 45 games from January to April of this year. His first multi-point game of the season came on January 27th against the Red Wings when he tallied 1 goal and 2 assists (1 primary and 1 secondary). Barkov returned to his rookie year form, and at times he looked even more dominant than that. Following Jaromir Jagr’s arrival in South Florida, Barkov jumped to another level, playing at nearly a point-per-game pace with 15 points in the final 20 games of the season. During this span, he had 3 multi-point games including the first multi-goal game of his career against the Montreal Canadiens. One of the goals was a beautiful top-shelf backhand on Carey Price who is arguably one of the best goaltenders in the league. The effect of Barkov on Jagr has been pretty dramatic as well. When Barkov is on the ice with Jagr, the 43-year-old’s GF60 (goal for per 60 minutes of ice time) equals 3.26 goals, compared to just 2.16 goals when they’re apart.
Barkov plays with a quiet confidence and isn’t an overly flashy or energetic player. His skating was shaky at the beginning of the season, and he was often losing an edge and falling. Whether this was a skate issue or not, his skating has still improved greatly, even just over the course of this season. He looks quicker and smoother than last year, and that has contributed to his success in the defensive and offensive zone. He’s shooting at a slightly higher pace than last year, averaging 1.73 shots per game this year compared to 1.61 shots per game in his rookie season, and that’s important to his success now and in the future. Barkov has a laser for a wrist shot, and it often catches goaltenders off guard when he gets the puck off his stick. He’s a pass first player so he’ll still pass more often than not, but he’s beginning to learn to take advantage of situations when he should be shooting rather than passing. Barkov has also been impressive along the boards this year as well, and it’s been magnified by Jagr and Huberdeau who have also been excellent when engaged in board battles or while in the corners.
There’s no doubt that Barkov is poised to become the Panthers’ top-line center, and he’s got the tools to do so. He’s easily one of the smartest players on the team, he’s got incredible vision, and he can play both sides of the puck well. With Huberdeau on his wing, and Jagr back in the fold on his right side, it’s pretty safe to say Barkov is in the perfect position to succeed next year. And like Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews are to their respective teams, Barkov will be one of the keys to Florida making the playoffs.