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On June 30, 2013 Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon faced a choice on the draft floor of the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
After the Colorado Avalanche took Nathan MacKinnon with the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft, it came down to two prospects at No. 2: do-it-all center Aleksander Barkov from Finland or slick defenseman Seth Jones of Texas.
“We had some young defensemen already in the mix, we thought our biggest need was – it was close. It came down to Barkov and Jones,” Tallon said.
Almost the entire year, Jones had been the No. 1 rated prospect, but doubts started before the draft, for Tallon and the rest of the teams picking high in the draft. There was a belief that defensemen took longer to develop and teams looked at forwards as a surer bet in the top-5 of the draft.
Tallon had seen Jones and knew what the defenseman offered. His European scouts, especially Finnish scout Jari Kekalainen, were bullish on Barkov – a talented player but someone who wasn’t as known in North America.
The pitch was simple to Tallon.
“They felt that for his age he was one of the most well-rounded players both offensively and defensively,” he said. “He was a more complete player than a lot of other players in that draft.”
This report sounded familiar to Tallon. He had snatched up a well-rounded centerman before as a general manager in a draft, and understood the importance to such a position.
Tallon selected Jonathan Toews with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2006 Draft. So when the time came to pick in 2013, he had to take the potential franchise center over the possible franchise blueliner.
"I’m a big center ice man and I’m big on centers, and I think you build your team through the middle with goaltending and centers and we already had Nick Bjugstad coming who we had just signed and this was a chance to give us two big men down the middle who were good players, one a righty and one a lefty," former assistant general manager Mike Santos said.
The decision has paid off quicker and better than a lot of expected. Barkov has turned into arguably the best two-way player from that draft year, and possibly the top overall player. This season he’s notched 23 points in 29 games, won 49.1 percent of his faceoffs while averaging 19:38 of ice-time per-game – 1:19 of which being shorthanded. His CF% is at 49.86 percent this season and his CF% Rel is a plus-3.21 according to War on Ice.
This means the the team also holds onto the puck more relative to the rest of the group during Barkov’s shifts.
“He’s confident. He’s big and strong and that’s the thing. He’s more experienced. His game is hitting another level because he’s more experienced now and he’s a big, strong kid,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “His confidence is second-to-none. That’s what we expect. He’s a high draft pick. The last two years have been pretty good years for young player development, now he’s at a different level and he brings it every night in a consistent game.”
Barkov’s game was forged through his own defensive nature along with the teachings of his father – Aleksander Sr. a former pro player in Russia, Italy and Finland.
His dad gave him pro-style advice at a young age, and still does to this day.
“I don’t know how he gets to watch my every game on TV and texts me after every game on what I can do better,” Barkov said.
When Aleksander Barkov Jr. was a child in Finland he enjoyed keeping pucks out of the net more than scoring goals. While a lot of hockey players learn offense before figuring out the defensive side of the game, Barkov was the opposite.
“In Finland, when I was younger, I had that problem that I played too much in my own zone. I was a forward, but I played in my own zone. I didn’t get any chance to play in the offensive zone because I was playing so much in my own zone and I didn’t want the other team to score on me,” Barkov said. “But right now, I’m thinking more about offense because I know I can play the defensive game.”
It also helped that Barkov often played above his age group. He spent two years in the Finnish Elite League – his first coming as most a 16-year-old. During the 2012-13 season he faced off against NHL players, since many were locked out for the first half of their year, and many decided to play pro hockey in Europe.
“When I started to play against older guys I had to practice more and work harder to get better to adjust to play against the older guys,” Barkov said. “They’re older and faster so you have to work harder.”
Barkov plays on one of the more interesting lines in the NHL. On one wing he has fellow youngster Jonathan Huberdeau. On the other there’s 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr, who has found symmetry playing with the 20-year-old Barkov.
Part of the reason the Panthers acquired Jagr was so he could teach Barkov, and some of the other young players, how to be a more effective at the NHL level. When the Panthers made the trade for Jagr last year, Barkov said he couldn’t concentrate on the next game.
“My mind was … I couldn’t think about the game, I was thinking about him,” Barkov said.
As far as the Panthers know, Barkov doesn’t go with Jagr for one of his legendary midnight workouts at the team’s practice facility. At least not yet.
“We had so many good young players and we wanted him to show them the way and he’s amazed us with his off-ice preparation,” Tallon said. “I think these kids, their eyes are wide open, our whole team – has increased and feels more invigorated off-ice with the extra things they do that make them better off the ice.”
The following draft year, the Panthers took defenseman Aaron Ekblad with the No. 1 overall pick, giving them their potential franchise defenseman. With Ekblad in the fold, Jones became unnecessary anyway, making the decision to select Barkov an even stronger pick.
“We felt that made us pretty strong up the middle down the road,” Tallon said. “That’s where you have to be successful is up the middle. All the way through.”
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