After being chosen second overall in the 2013 NHL Draft by the Panthers, Finnish centre Aleksander Barkov started the season in Florida and is already having a significant impact.
In the end, it was Barkov’s fierce self-confidence that eventually convinced the Florida Panthers to take him with the second overall selection in the NHL Draft on June 30.
His performance in the first two games of the 2013/2014 NHL season, including a very important goal in his NHL debut Thursday night in the Panthers’ season-opening 4-2 victory in Dallas, further proves Florida General Manager Dale Tallon made the right decision.
Barkov’s goal, coming at 18 years and 31 days old, made him the youngest player to score in the NHL in 70 years, and it was a big one, tying the game 2-2 in the third period. He won an offensive zone face-off to start the play and eventually got to a loose rebound and fired it home, one of four shots on goal that night.
“He had a big game,” teammate Kris Versteeg said of Barkov. “He played great for us.”
Things might have turned out differently, but the same determination that fueled Barkov’s outstanding 48-point season with Tappara Tampere in Finland’s SM-liiga last season shone through during his pre-draft interview, further convincing Tallon that he was a special player.
So when Colorado opted for Nathan MacKinnon with the first overall choice, Tallon was faced with the decision of picking either top-rated Seth Jones, a defenceman, high-scoring centre Jonathan Drouin, or Barkov.
In the end, it had to be the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Barkov, who had already completed two seasons facing off against men in the Finnish top league and he wasn’t even 18 yet. The fact that Barkov suffered a shoulder injury during Tappara’s run to the league final that required surgery didn’t scare them off, either. Nor should it have, because although the injury prevented him from participating in the Panthers’ development camp in early July, Barkov was already 100 per cent healthy well before training camp in September.
“We like his strength, his size, he’s really strong on the puck, he’s strong on his feet and he’s only going to get stronger,” Tallon said after the draft. “It was a tough decision, but we needed to be strong up the middle. I like big strong centremen that are strong playmakers and we went back and forth for a few days on this one, but we felt that he was the most talented guy, with size, and he has a left-handed shot, something we didn’t have in our system.”
Barkov was excited to be picked second, but pointed out that it was just the first part of a longer journey.
“I was so excited, but that’s not enough,” he said of hearing his name called. “I want to play in the NHL. This is just the first step to the NHL in my career. I will come here and I want to play for Florida.”
That unwavering self-assurance was viewed by Tallon as a positive.
“It was a very tough decision,” Tallon reiterated. “The thing that sold me on him, in our second interview was that, ‘I don’t want to go back to Finland, I want to play in the NHL right away, if not for you, then for someone else. I just want to play in the NHL, I’ve done all I can as a young man in the Finnish league and I want to come play in the NHL now.’ So that really helped convince us in a tough decision between Barkov, Jones and Drouin.”
Florida Director of Scouting Scott Luce also raved about Barkov, who goes by the nickname ‘Sasha’.
“Sasha Barkov has never played with his own age group,” Luce told the Panthers’ website. “He’s always played up a year or two. Now he’s played two years with men. He’s a hockey player. He’s got great size, great strength, great hockey IQ. And he just didn’t play. He was one of the best players in the Finnish Elite League. It’s not like he was being carried by older linemates, he set the pace. He set the tone in every Finnish Elite League game that I saw this year he played in. He’s going to have a great future in the National Hockey League.”
Barkov’s father, Alexander, played professional hockey in Europe for many years, including five with Spartak Moscow in the Soviet league before spending 10 seasons with Tappara Tampere in Finland, where the family ended up settling. So although his dad is Russian and he can speak the language, Barkov, who was born in Tampere, is definitely Finnish.
“(My dad influenced my career) very much,” said Barkov, who has represented Finland at each of the last two World Junior Championships. “He and my mother put me on the skates, put a stick in my hands and said, ‘Go.’ They helped me very much in my career and I love them.”
Just like the player himself, Tallon also believes Barkov can have an immediate impact in the NHL this year and he’s already looking like he will. That’s part of the reason Tallon quickly signed Barkov to a three-year entry-level contract just two weeks after the draft.
“He was the second-best player in the Finnish Elite League at 16 turning 17,” Tallon said. “He’s played two years in that league and he feels he’s ready, he’s very confident, a quiet confidence. He’s got size and skill, he makes other players around him better. He’s very smart, he sees the ice extremely well and that’s what you need.”
Barkov certainly believes that his experience facing high-level competition in the SM-liiga has prepared him well for his rookie NHL year.
“It’s a very good league with very good players,” said Barkov, who finished second on his team – and ninth overall in the league – with 48 points (21 goals, 27 assists) in 53 games, while his +18 ranked second on Tappara and sixth overall. “I’m big centre forward and I can play a good two-way game, power play and penalty killing, and take face-offs.”
“That’s not an easy thing to do,” Tallon said of Barkov’s offensive success in Finland. “Scoring is a tough thing to do on the big ice, and he’s able to score goals and set up goals as well. He’s a well-rounded player. He’s a good penalty killer, he’s conscientious in his own end and I like his size and strength on the puck.”
As for moving to a place with a vastly different climate than he’s used to in Finland?
“Very much sun, good beaches and warm water,” Barkov said. “I’m very excited.”
So are the Panthers.