When I arrived in New York City for the 2013 NHL Draft, there was a fair bit of debate as to whether Nathan MacKinnon or Seth Jones would be taken with the first-overall pick. While not believed to be the top pick, Jonathan Drouin’s name was also front-and-center during Draft Week. Needless to say, wherever the aforementioned players went, they would be counted on to help mold their respective clubs into future contenders – and rightfully so.
But after the Colorado Avalanche selected Nathan MacKinnon with the first pick, the Florida Panthers were on the clock. Immediately, I thought, “Would it be Jones or Drouin?” It didn’t turn out to be either as the Panthers selected big forward Aleksander Barkov.
Since he was slated as a high pick, Aleksander Barkov’s selection didn’t mean that the Panthers exactly went off the board. It was a surprising pick, nonetheless, but not one that necessarily should have been met with derision. After all, team general manager Dale Tallon has had quite the impressive track record as a GM – just ask the Chicago Blackhawks, winners of two Stanley Cups since 2010.
The lockout-shortened season was, on paper, at least, a significant setback for a Panthers club which appeared to have turned a corner in 2012 where their 38-26-18 mark was good enough to end the club’s 12-year playoff drought. During the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign, however, the Panthers went backwards, finishing with a dismal 15-27-6 mark – good enough for last place in the entire National Hockey League. Thankfully, there is that silver-lining that awarded the lowly Panthers with a high draft pick.
While the aforementioned MacKinnon, Jones and Drouin have all helped their respective NHL clubs thus far, the same could definitely be said for Aleksander Barkov. He may play in the NHL’s southernmost city in front of some of the scarcest crowds in the league but the native of Tampere, Finland, is already helping to turn one of hockey’s most-overlooked franchises into a playoff contender – and all at the tender age of 19.
At 6′ 3, 213 pounds, Aleksander Barkov is blessed with a plethora of size and, in said regard, has been compared to the likes of Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and, a player I have covered for the last six years, Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings. The latter comparison has been a welcomed sight for Panthers captain Willie Mitchell, who, while in Los Angeles, saw Kopitar evolve into the player he is today in addition to sharing two Stanley Cup victories with him.
As of right now, however, it is admittedly unfair to compare Barkov to Kopitar as the former has just finished his second season in the National Hockey League while Kopitar just wrapped up his ninth campaign. Still, Kopitar has already had a decorated career and Barkov’s career could very well lead down the same path. After all, his Panthers, while they did miss the playoffs this past season, have certainly come a long way since the abbreviated 2013 season.
After scoring eight goals and 16 assists in 54 games in 2013-14, Barkov stepped it up in his sophomore year, scoring 16 goals and adding 20 assists in 71 games for the Panthers. Becoming more comfortable in his surroundings coupled with the additions of veterans such as netminder Roberto Luongo and the aforementioned Willie Mitchell, Aleksander Barkov should be more comfortable at this season’s conclusion as opposed to one year ago. However, Barkov has not been quite as physical as many would have believed. In 2014-15, the Finnish forward registered only 35 hits.
Still, it should not be a secret that the Florida Panthers are on the precipice of becoming a championship contender. It may not happen next season but it should occur much sooner than later. In addition to Luongo and Mitchell, the ageless Jaromir Jagr adds a plethora of experience to this young club while last year’s leading-scorer Jonathan Huberdeau just keeps getting better, as does, among others, Tomas Fleischmann.
I see teams around with the league with a ton of potential and plenty of room for intriguing storylines. The Florida Panthers are no exception to this. With youngsters like Barkov and Huberdeau mixed in with the veteran presences of Brad Boyes and Jussi Jokinen up front, the Florida Panthers will be a tough team to keep off the scoresheet. On the blueline, Willie Mitchell leads a corp that includes fellow veteran Brian Campbell, up-and-comer Dmitri Kulikov and 2015 Calder nominee Aaron Ekblad, who has already taken the lofty expectations of being the first-overall draft selection last June in stride.
It may not be today or tomorrow but soon, the Florida Panthers will be making their mark on the Atlantic Division, the Eastern Conference and the entire National Hockey League on a regular basis. With that, you can be sure that Aleksander Barkov will be there front-and-center, embracing his role as the franchise’s cornerstone with tremendous pride – and even more tremendous skill.