Florida Panthers: Aleksander Barkov May Just be the Most Underrated Player

SUNRISE, FL - DECEMBER 15: Aleksander Barkov #16 of the Florida Panthers skates with the puck against John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the BB&T Center on December 15, 2018 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
SUNRISE, FL - DECEMBER 15: Aleksander Barkov #16 of the Florida Panthers skates with the puck against John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the BB&T Center on December 15, 2018 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images) /

After his performance against the Maple Leafs last Saturday, I think it’s safe to say that Aleksander Barkov is the most underrated player in the NHL.

It’s been a good while since the Florida Panthers have played on Hockey Night in Canada (Saturday night). It’s also been a while since Barkov has appeared in the spotlight, something players in South Florida so desperately lack.

But unlike some players – who either crack or go ghost in prime time – Barkov takes the chance and puts on a show. No matter where he’s playing, at what time or who he may be playing against, Barkov is always ready to pour 150%+ out on the ice.

His play against the Leafs exemplified just that, as he propelled the Panthers to a 4-3 overtime victory, sealing his first career NHL hat trick. In addition, he also logged a whopping 27:42 which also includes both time on the power play and penalty kill.

But let’s get back to the underline topic of this discussion. We’re here not only to discuss Barkov and his magician-like play, but most importantly, we’re here to recognize Sasha as the most underrated player in the National Hockey League.

Of course, no one would deny that Barkov lacks the spotlight and media attention on a daily basis. After all, he plays in Sunrise, Florida, a market known for its lack of media coverage and attendance.

Besides those points, though, it’s Barkov’s overall play that often goes unnoticed and flies under the radar for those around the league.

When we think of ‘two-way players,’ we often think of the Patrice Bergerons, Anze Kopitars, and even the Nick Backstroms of the game. All of those players are monsters in their own respective ways and are quite influential in all three zones of the ice.

Barkov, too, is also very similar to those three, and has played with that type of style and flair since he entered the league back in 2013-14. He also relatively matches their numbers both offensively and defensively.

Offensively speaking, Barkov may fall short underneath some really good talent, but considering the amount of ice time he logs and the heavy matchups he faces, these circumstances should be taken into account when comparing these numbers to actual context.

In shot attempts (Corsi), Barkov currently sits at 48.91% which means that when he’s on the ice, his line is giving up more shots than they are taking.

In comparison, top players like Mikko Rantanen (51.16%), Nathan MacKinnon (51.84%), and Nick Backstrom (50.92%) are just a few players who sit slightly above Barkov in the shot attempt department this year.

While numbers are numbers and the data shows that these three players (specifically) rank higher in shot attempts than Barkov early on in the year, it’s important we recognize that all three of these players play for stronger teams and are surrounded with more talent.

Even so, however, it’s still impressive that Barkov – who plays for a traditionally bad team – still has the capability to hang around some of these players.

In fact, this year alone, Barkov ranks ahead of Anze Kopitar (48.48%) – whose average Corsi For ranking is 55%, a number that is considered ‘elite’ in this certain metric.

Part of this is largely due to the fact that the L.A. Kings are just horrible this year and are below 50% in shot attempts.

But, as Barkov continues to grow and enter his prime, there’s no doubt that his figure will at least reach or potentially surpass Kopitar’s (55%), Backstrom’s (53.3%), and maybe even Bergeron’s average figure (57.7%).

Keep in mind, that elite two-way players like Bergeron, Kopitar, and Backstrom also benefit from better usage by starting the majority of their shifts in the offensive zone rather than defensive zone.

Last year alone, Barkov started 59.6% of his shifts in the defensive zone, while the aforementioned three started theirs with figures of 51.9% (AK), 49% (NB), and 40.6% (PB).

This mean, that Barkov was heavily thrown in unfavorable situations, asked to take on larger roles to sacrifice parts of his offense for the betterment of his team.

In hindsight, he didn’t have the luxury like the other three to start shifts in the O zone, with the greatest chance to generate scoring chances to score.

Bergeron – who favors the best in Corsi between the four (both on average and per year) – benefits tremendously from his deployment in zone starts, which is a great indicator/factor of his high Corsi percentage.

Corsi, of course, is a great stat to measure one’s offense, but like any stat involved, it too has its flaws. A better stat, in my opinion, which meshes quantity of shots and also quality of shots into one is no other than ‘expected goals.’

Expected goals, also shortened as ‘xGF’ and ‘xGA,’ looks towards both sides of the ice. Like Corsi, it generates two figures between ‘for’ and against.’

Florida Panthers
Florida Panthers /

Florida Panthers

With this metric, specifically, we can determine who’s giving up or generating more ‘quality of shots’ based on a number of different factors: shot type (wrist, snap, slap, deflection etc.), distance from the net, shot angle, whether a shot was a rebound and/or generated off the rush, and if it was taken on the power play, even strength or on the penalty kill.

Combining Barkov’s rookie year up until now for all four players will give us the best possible indicator of where Sasha matches up between the others.

Collectively, through ’13-14 to now, Barkov’s xGF/60 is 2.33, while his xGA/60 is 2.22. In case you aren’t following, this means that Barkov is generating more high-danger scoring opportunities than he’s giving up.

His counterparts? Kopitar (2.47 to 2), Backstrom (2.28 to 2.22), and Bergeron (2.56 to 1.86) also boast some respectable or if not, great numbers. They, too, are generating more high-danger scoring chances than they are conceding.

Although, as you can see, Barkov beats out Backstrom from 2013-14 to now in terms of average expected goals, but falls just below both Bergeron and Kopitar.

Again, this is another stat that has heavy influence on your team and teammates. Unfortunately, from the very start of his NHL career, Barkov has not only played on some pretty woeful Panthers teams, but the team itself hasn’t exactly offered the Finn favorable usage.

With a better team and supporting cast from the get-go, you can sure bet that Barkov’s figures would certainly be higher, had those circumstances worked out in his favor from the very start.

It’s also interesting to note, that so far, Barkov not only plays more per game than the three above, but he averages the most minutes per game in the league with 23:13 by his name.

Kopitar – who comes the closest to Barkov in TOI/GP – logs 22:38 a night, while Backstrom and Bergeron sit at 20:28 and 18:55, respectively.

Shorthanded, Barkov also leads the pack, featuring in 2:16 on the penalty kill nightly. Kopitar comes in again at second, falling just behind Barkov with 2:05.

The other two (Bergeron and Backstrom), sneak in at 1:59 and 1:05, respectively (*Bergeron has only played in 19 games, out with a long-term injury).

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Finally, let’s look at both Corsi and expected goals through the lens of quality of competition. Like our exercise with expected goals above, we are going to take Barkov’s rookie year up until now for all four players.

The stats we’re going to use are labelled as ‘xGF/xGA/60 QoC’ and ‘CF% QoC.’ Starting with xGF/60 QoC and xGA/60 QoC, Barkov ends up with 2.38 in expected goals for, 2.36 in expected goals against, and 49.93% in Corsi.

With this, we conclude that Barkov is playing against some really tough competition and is matching up against the opponent’s No. 1 line (which you can also confirm through the eye test).

Most importantly, though, it’s also crucial that we run through the quality of his teammates, which provides a direct cause for the numbers presented above.

Through quality of teammates (QoT), Barkov holds 49.55% in CF%, 2.25 in xGF/60, and 2.47 in xGA/60, which all factors in the quality of his teammates (as well as linemates).

How about the other three? Let’s start with quality of competition and then directly turn our attention over to quality of teammates.

Starting with Kopitar, per quality of competition (QoC), he sits at 2.37 xGF/60, 2.36 xGA/60, and 50%. Backstrom? 2.38 xGF/60, 2.36 xGA/60, and 50.01% CF%. And finally, Bergeron; 2.33 xGF/60, 2.35 xGA/60, and 49.68% CF%.

Now, per quality of teammates (QoT), we start again with Kopitar; 2.2 xGF/60, 2.25 xGA/60, and 51.12%. Backstrom? 2.31 xGF/60, 2.44 xGA/60, and 49.8% CF%. And finally, Bergeron; 2.47 xGF/60, 2.28 xGA/60, and 51.28% CF%.

So, what does this all mean? We can safely conclude from the data that the four altogether roughly play against the same level of competition.

Additionally, though, when we look further into the data, we can see that both Barkov and Backstrom’s competition slightly generate more high-danger scoring opportunities and shot attempts, in comparison to Kopitar and Bergeron’s competition.

For Barkov, this means that a). he’s matching up against tougher opposition and b). he doesn’t get the luxury of easier matchups in certain situations (which Kopitar and Bergeron may get from time to time).

For a player under the age of 25, this is not only a heavy task to ask, but it’s quite incredible how Barkov has fared taking into account all that he’s dealt with since throwing on the Panthers sweater.

Furthermore, when we look into the quality of teammates per all four (from above), we can also summarize that Barkov isn’t surrounded with the quality of teammates that Bergeron, Backstrom, and even Kopitar have benefitted from.

Bergeron, especially, has not only benefitted from his linemates around him, but he’s played on some really good Bruins teams that provided both skill and depth all around.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about Sasha with the Cats, as Barkov has only made the postseason twice in his young NHL career.

If there’s anything that I can conclude upon in this long writeup, it’s how impressive Barkov is with unfortunate circumstances standing in his way.

If the Panthers can somehow improve collectively as a team, there’s no doubt that Barkov will surpass those three mentioned above in every possible category.

He’s already matching their production on a bad team, just imagine if he were playing on a team towards the level of caliber that the other three are playing on or have played on (in the past).

Taking every possible angle into consideration, I can *now* safely conclude that forward Aleksander Barkov is the most underrated player in the NHL.

Next. Who Would Have Thunk? A Season in the Toilet. dark

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