Aleksander Barkov is certainly no novice in the NHL at this point in his career. He has a decade of experience under his belt. He’s the Florida Panthers’ captain, a two-time All-Star, the holder of a slew of team records and one of the faces of the franchise.
Yet even with 10 years in the NHL and a legacy being well established, Barkov is coming off a 2022-23 season that tested him in new ways and gave him a better understanding of how to elevate his game to even greater heights.
“Last year,” Barkov said, “taught me the most.”
That’s what happens when a player of Barkov’s caliber finally gets to experience an elongated postseason run.
After an underwhelming start to the season, the Panthers snuck into the Stanley Cup playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s final team. They went from the brink of elimination in the first round to pulling off a wild, seven-game upset of the top-seeded Boston Bruins. And then they beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games and swept the Carolina Hurricanes to get to the Stanley Cup Final, where they ultimately lost in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights.
Prior to last season, Barkov had played just 26 total playoff games and had advanced out of the first round with the Panthers once in four tries.
So while the Panthers fell short of their ultimate goal, Barkov gained valuable perspective of how to handle the biggest moments of his career.
“It’s special in the playoffs. The emotional roller coaster is very real,” Barkov said. “It gets very high and very low. It feels like when you win one game, you’re gonna win the whole thing. If you lose one game, you lost the whole season. Managing that last postseason, to try and keep it even, that’s what I learned the most. Continue to work as hard as possible no matter what, if you won the game or not. You have to be better in the next game.”
Getting so close but yet still being so far away from hoisting the Stanley Cup is all the motivation Barkov needs as Year 11 gets underway.
“I feel more excited to be honest,” Barkov said. “I know it was a big disappointment in the final. We didn’t win it. Vegas was really good and they deserved it. But I think the year and the postseason and even the regular season, with all the ups and downs and how we overcame ... everyone’s prepared.”
Much of the preparation starts with Barkov, the former No. 2 overall pick who the Panthers locked up with an eight-year, $80 million contract ahead of the 2021-22 season. The center is one of the Panthers’ hardest workers on the ice, setting the example for newcomers and veterans alike. He enters each day with something to prove, finding a way to better himself.
Also, he’s really good.
Barkov holds the Panthers’ franchise records for goals scored (243) and points (631). He’s eight games away from the franchise record for games played and 28 assists away from that mark, too.
“He’s elite,” said forward Evan Rodrigues, who signed a four-year deal with Florida this offseason and has been on a line with Barkov throughout the start of training camp. “I think a lot of people say Barkov’s underrated but I don’t know if he’s underrated anymore. I think everyone kind of sees how good he is.”
That includes the South Florida community he calls home. Barkov said he remembered the early stages of his career when “you could walk anywhere and nobody will recognize you.”
After making the playoffs each of the past four seasons and making a run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last season, things have changed.
“Even just going to some grocery shop or something, some people recognize me and just say ‘Congrats on a nice year’ and ‘bring the cup next year’ and that kind of stuff,” Barkov said. “What the Panthers as an organization and a team have done for my years, it’s amazing seeing the community and getting recognized more.”
Barkov is coming off a season in which he missed 14 games in the regular season, including being sidelined for seven games in a 10-game stretch with illness. He still managed to score 23 goals and dish out 55 assists in the 68 games he did play. In the playoffs, Barkov tallied 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 21 games.
“He’s asserted himself, especially last year,” Rodrigues said. “He is an elite first-line center that every GM wants and he’s a leader of our team on top of it. He does all the little things right. He’s everything you want.”
This and that
▪ After not practicing Friday due to muscle tightness, winger Carter Verhaeghe returned to the ice Saturday and skated in the small group between the main sessions that features players who are recovering from injuries. That group includes defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour as well as forward Jonah Gadjovich.
▪ Coach Paul Maurice said defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson will get early looks on the power play. In his 13-year NHL career, Ekman-Larsson has 58 power-play goals and 175 power-play points.
▪ Anton Lundell, on becoming a veteran of sorts despite being just 21 years old as he enters Year 3 in the NHL: “It’s funny. Sometimes, guys come and ask me questions on how they should do things. I’m like ‘Well, I know the answer, but I don’t get asked that much.’ I love to help the guys.”