A Florida Panthers player has never won the Hart Trophy. That might change in five years, as Aleksander Barkov, their Finnish captain and top-line center, approaches his prime.
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The Hart Trophy race has been dominated by bona fide superstars through the years. Wayne Gretzky holds the record with nine MVP honors. His idol Gordie Howe was handed the trophy six times.
However, there has been a bunch of more surprising NHL MVPs, including Taylor Hall, Chris Pronger (the only defenseman after 1972 and Bobby Orr), and Corey Perry. Barkov is set to join the MVP club, sooner rather than later.
Barkov: From Tampere to Florida
The son of a Russian hockey pro (also named Aleksander Barkov), Barkov was born in Tampere, Finland, on Sept. 2, 1995, after his father’s first season with Tappara Tampere. Barkov junior played for Tappara and Team Finland before being drafted second overall by the Panthers in 2013.
At the age of 18, Barkov made an instant impact in the NHL. Although the numbers weren’t staggering — 8 goals and 24 points in 54 games — he proved he was NHL ready. He improved to 36 points (including 16 goals) in his next season and 59 points in his third term.
In his third season (2015-16), he scored eight game-winning goals — his career-best to date. The Panthers brass was impressed, and an extension was signed midseason. A bridge deal wasn’t an option — Barkov got a six-year, $35.4 million contract.
That season was a big breakthrough. He became a Lady Byng Trophy finalist and played his first games in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
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Barkov scored a career high of 96 points in 2018-19. After the 2019-20 season, he has 155 goals and 407 points in 479 NHL games. And yes, he took the Lady Byng Trophy home, too — in 2019, he became only the second Panther to get that honor (Brian Campbell was the first in 2012).
Barkov’s Qualities Rank with the Best
Barkov is on his way to becoming a complete hockey player. His combination of physical, technical, and mental abilities is exceptional for a 24-year-old. And he’s only getting started.
Hockey sense is Barkov’s strongest asset. He’s an intuitive player — he reacts before most other players even realize what’s happened. He foresees the course of play like very few others. He passes, shoots and dekes beautifully — while playing a relentless, two-way game.
His 6-foot-3 frame is ideal for his style of play and there’s no dead weight, either — he’s listed at 210 pounds. In the 2017 offseason, he made a conscious effort to become leaner. “The summer was a bit different,” he said. “I’m in better form now. I’m lighter, skating is easier, I have more stamina. Now I’m able to play a faster-paced game.”
Another “secret” weapon is the long stick that he uses. It allows for some sneaky poke-checking and helps in puck protection, too.
Barkov is a compelling personality. He’s hardly the loudest guy in the room; in contrast, he’s a cool presence and has a natural sense of humor. He’s an exemplary team player. Taking all his qualities into account, it’s no wonder he was elected the Panthers’ captain prior to the 2018-19 season. (from ‘Aleksander Barkov named Florida Panthers team captain,’ Florida Sun-Sentinel, 09/17/2018)
“During that season, I grew up a lot as a player and a person,” Barkov recalled. “I was named captain during the training camp, and that sent me to an emotional roller coaster. I was excited, but nervous at the same time. Gradually, I felt it was a huge privilege and not a burden.”
Barkov Can Win the Hart Trophy
Although the Hart Trophy is characteristically an individual honor, no player wins it without a top-notch supporting cast. On the Panthers, Barkov has played with the likes of Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau, and that has surely contributed to his development. The Panthers must make sure Barkov has potent linemates going forward.
The appointment of head coach Joel Quenneville was a turning point in Barkov’s career. “It all became totally different for the team,” Barkov admitted in 2019. “Practices became harder. We train a lot and skate a lot. The team was tired when the season (2019-20) started, but it will all pay off in the long run.”
The Hart Trophy should not (and must not) go to the player, who simply scores the most points. That’s what the Art Ross Trophy is for. By definition, the Hart Trophy goes “to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.” Barkov should be in that discussion soon — in five years at the latest.
He will face some extremely tough competition, no doubt about that. Barkov will be compared to young superstars like Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, and David Pastrnak, as well as two seasoned veterans like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Carey Price. And who knows what Jack Hughes and Alexis Lafrenière will do in five years.
You don’t have to dig deep to find examples of surprising winners. Taylor Hall scored just 53 points in 72 games for the New Jersey Devils in 2016-17. A year later, he took the Hart Trophy home. Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers is in very serious Hart discussion now — not many could foresee that a year ago, despite his 105 points.
Is it crazy to predict that Barkov will be a Hart Trophy winner? It’s not. He may not be a top candidate just yet, but unpredictability is key. When all pieces fall into place, an incredible season can emerge out of the blue — I’m convinced that Barkov will have a Hart-worthy one in five years.
Pasi Tuominen is a sportswriter based in New York City. He has covered the NHL in the USA since 2008. Originally from Finland, he is a graduate of the University of Westminster and University of Jyvaskyla. A professional writer since 1999 and the founder of East Side Media.