Following an injury-riddled 2016-17 season, Aleksander Barkov was poised to fully recover and take the NHL by storm at just 22-years-old, all while trying to lead the Florida Panthers to a playoff position.
Flashing back just a season ago and we were telling a different Aleksander Barkov story. Another season of under 70 games played, another major injury, more question marks. And all of it would’ve been fair questions. Barkov finished the 2016-17 season, his fourth as a pro, with just 62 games on the ice, but the signs of a future superstar was telling with 52 points recorded in those 62 games played.
Fast forward a year later: a year of a new coach, a new system, new linemates and suddenly the narrative on the 22 year-old Barkov has changed. Suddenly, Barkov played 79 games and potted 78 points, while receiving praise from every walk of life, including his own coach, Bob Boughner, who was taken aback by the Finnish centers’ abilities, at least after a 3-2 win against the New Jersey Devils, where he had nothing but amazing things to say about Barkov:
"“What else can you say? I’ve said every word that I can think of.”"
In order to sound less like a broken record, let us get this out-of-the-way now: Aleksander Barkov is a really good hockey player. In fact, he’s a top 10 center in all of hockey, and ideally, he’s already making an argument for the best player in the history of the Florida Panthers after this.
Sure, maybe Barkov isn’t the best player in Panthers history quite yet, but he’s pretty darn close to it. The 78 points Barkov scored? A career-high and team-high. The 51 assists Barkov tallied? A career-high and team-high. The 5 shorthanded goals that Barkov added on the penalty kill? A career-high and the most in the NHL. The crazy shootout goals Barkov added to his already impressive highlight reel? Expected.
Frankly, it seemed like there was nothing Barkov could do wrong this year, and you may be right, maybe there was nothing he could do wrong as he even made his linemates better, giving both Huberdeau and Dadonov their best years in their NHL careers.
Despite playing a majority of his career with Jonathan Huberdeau, coach Boughner changed that in the middle of the season, placing Barkov alongside Nick Bjugstad.
After a horrific 2016-17 campaign, Bjugstad needed to turn it around, after posting 14 points in 54 games. The result of placing the former first round pick alongside Barkov? 49 points in 82 games with 30 assists, both of which ended up being career-highs. Bjugstad would also earn his first plus season, being a +5 on the year.
Dadonov, who remained on Barkov’s line the entire year, was also amazing throughout the entire season, and honestly, maybe the Panthers’ second-best forward on the season, even if stats tell a different story. In 74 games, Dadonov recorded 65 points (28G and 37A). In March, Dadonov was one of the primary reasons the team was competing for a playoff spot late in the season, scoring 8 goals in the final full month of the season for the Cats.
Maybe no game showed how much that 1st line elevated the Panthers’ as much as a 6-5 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins back in March, where Dadonov scored his first career NHL hat trick, while Barkov and Bjugstad both tallied assists, which included 3 for Barkov:
Sure, the praise for Barkov is a lot and maybe even a little unjustified, but it’s not like Barkov’s only claim to fame this season was being a ‘box score stuffer,’ because his analytics support everything that’s been said about Barkov this entire year.
Aleksander finished the season with a Corsi For Percentage (CF%) of 51.44%, which ranked 6th on the Panthers and 4th among all Panther forwards. The figure itself may not mean much, but when comparing it to other forwards around the league, it gets more impressive. His 51.44% compared closely to that of premiere NHL forward’s like Taylor Hall (51.25%), Jamie Benn (51.35%) and Patrick Kane (51.61%).
Additionally, there’s a reason why Barkov was called one of the most underrated players in the NHL by his peers. There’s also a reason why Barkov was given so much praise around the league, and there’s finally another reason why when we begin to discuss the best players in hockey that Barkov deserves praise, because frankly, discrediting him for playing in a small market is both shortsighted and overall dumb.
He can’t change a city’s market size, nor can he change any mismanagement from front office. But what Barkov can do is make Panthers’ fans hope for the future of hoisting a Stanley Cup.