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Panthers’ Barkov ‘has been a force’ in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Wayne Gretzky is noticing

Wayne Gretzky has taken notice of a particular player in the Stanley Cup Final.

And it’s not the superstar on the Edmonton Oilers team with whom he won four cups.

“No. 16 is the best defensive hockey player I’ve seen since Bryan Trottier,” Gretzky said Saturday night on the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast.

No. 16, of course, is the Florida Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov, who this season won his second career Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best two-way forward. Trottier is a 1997 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame who was a defensive stalwart for the New York Islanders in their heyday and has seven total Stanley Cups to his name (four with the Islanders, two with the Penguins and one with the Avalanche as an assistant coach).

Gretzky can speak from experience with the comparison. His Oilers played Trottier’s Islanders in 1983, with the Islanders sweeping the series and Trottier having a significant role in limiting Gretzky in his first trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

“I got Bryan Trottier for four games and what did I get? No goals,” Gretzky said. “And what did we get? No Cup.”

Fast forward a little more than four decades, and Oilers superstar Connor McDavid is making his first Stanley Cup Finals appearance.

And in Game 1, a 3-0 Panthers win, Florida’s star center Barkov held McDavid in check.

“Both of those guys are unreal players,” Gretzky said before adding “Conner has his work cut out with that young man.”

Barkov, upon hearing the praise a day later, was a bit starstruck.

“Wow, yeah, coming from him especially means a lot,’’ Barkov said. “Everyone knows what he meant to the game of hockey. When you hear people, especially a guy like that, say stuff like that, it obviously means a lot. I appreciate that.”

Sunrise, Florida, June 8, 2024 - Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) passes the puck to Florida Panthers defenseman Gustav Forsling (42) as Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) defends on the play in second period action during game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at Amerant Arena in Sunrise, Florida.
Sunrise, Florida, June 8, 2024 - Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) passes the puck to Florida Panthers defenseman Gustav Forsling (42) as Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) defends on the play in second period action during game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at Amerant Arena in Sunrise, Florida.

Now, this isn’t some one-time affair for Barkov. The 28-year-old center has quietly become one of the league’s top two-way players over his 11 NHL seasons and has been one of the top players this postseason.

The Panthers have also allowed just eight goals in the 260 minutes and 19 seconds Barkov has played at five-on-five this postseason entering Game 2 against the Oilers on Monday night. Barkov also has an NHL-best 25 takeaways in the postseason.

He played a pivotal role in limiting opposing stars in the first three rounds of the playoffs — Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov, Braydon Point and Steven Stamkos in Round 1; Boston BruinsDavid Pastrnak in Game 2; and the New York RangersChris Kreider, Nika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin in the Eastern Conference final.

But focusing on just Barkov’s defense is a fool’s errand, Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. After all, he 19 points (six goals, 13 assists) are tied with Matthew Tkachuk for the team lead.

“I don’t view Barkov as a shutdown center,’’ Maurice said. “because he doesn’t hit the ice with the idea of, ‘this is all I will do.’ He’s wired first to think defensively, team hockey first, but he’s a pretty gifted dynamic man as well. He carries that weight of having to do both. There’s a challenge to it but as you will see, there’s always a give and take. We need Barkov also to push the offense along, to make the play he made on the first goal. it’s not a sit-back gap game where all he does is grind it out. He’s far more gifted than that.”

Florida Panthers head coach Paul Maurice (1) talks with Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) during the third period of Game 1 of the NHL Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers at the Amerant Bank Arena on Saturday, June 8, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla.
Florida Panthers head coach Paul Maurice (1) talks with Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) during the third period of Game 1 of the NHL Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers at the Amerant Bank Arena on Saturday, June 8, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla.

Barkov had a pair of assists in Game 1 on Saturday, including the primary assist on Florida’s game-opening goal when he led the rush into the offensive zone in the opening minutes of the first period before sending a perfect pass to Carter Verhaeghe in front of the net.

Barkov now has a nine career multiassist playoff games and 16 total multi-point postseason games, both franchise records.

“Barky’s our leader and captain,” Verhaeghe said. “He’s such a force on the ice. He covers so much. It’s really easy to play with him. I just kind of go back and he gets the puck — he always seems to get a stick on the puck defensively — and break the puck out and that’s kind of what he did on the goal. He was in a good position starting low and made great plays through neutral zone and drove the middle. He’s so big and so fast and makes such good plays. It’s easy to play with him and I just kind of just want to the net and put on my stick. He’s been a force all playoffs and he’s such a huge part of our team and affects the game so much in so many different ways.”