The pressure of being the youngest Finnish forward to represent his country at the 2012 World Junior Championship never got the best of forward Aleksander Barkov.
In fact Barkov, who was one of only four 1995-born players participating at the 2012 WJC, became the youngest Finnish player to ever score a goal at the tournament. At 16 years and four months, the 6-foot-2, 209-pound center made history when he connected for the decisive goal in an 8-5 victory against Slovakia in the quarterfinal round.
Barkov finished with one goal and four points in seven games for fourth-place Finland at the 2012 tournament, which was held in Edmonton and Calgary.
"It was a great experience and it was nice to score a goal against Slovakia," Barkov told NHL.com. "The best hockey experience ever was that tournament."
In his second tour of duty for his country at the 2013 WJC in Ufa, Russia, he had three goals and seven points in six games, but Finland finished seventh.
Because of his WJC performance, as well as his regular-season play in Finland's top league, NHL Central Scouting ranked him as the No. 1 European skater heading into the 2013 NHL Draft at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on June 30.
According to NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb, Finland's struggles as a team at the World Juniors did nothing to diminish Barkov's draft stock.
He had 21 goals, 48 points and a plus-18 rating in 53 games for Tappara in SM-liiga, Finland's top professional league, in 2012-13.
"Barkov is big, strong and a hard-worker in all areas of the ice," Stubb told NHL.com. "He's a sniper who can also set up scoring chances for teammates. I like the fact he's a two-way center with a good understanding of his defensive duties."
In NHL.com's most recent mock drafts, one had Barkov going to the Tampa Bay Lightning with the third pick and two had him going to the Nashville Predators at No. 4.
Barkov's father, Alexander Barkov, is of Russian decent and played professionally in Russia, Italy and Finland. He spent the final 10 seasons of his career with Tappara. He was an assistant coach for Ak Bars Kazan in the KHL during the 2012-13 season. He also gets some of his athleticism from his mother, Olga, who played on the Russian national basketball team.
Aleksander, who speaks Russian, Finnish and English, was born in Tampere, Finland.
"I started to play hockey when I was 4 years old and on the same team [Tappara] I'm playing for now, so I've played 14 years on the same team," Barkov said. "I like it very much. Both my parents taught me to skate and spent time with me when I was a skate guard, and they drove me to team practices."
Barkov sustained a shoulder injury on his first shift of his team's playoff game against IFK Helsinki on March 27 and was sidelined the remainder of the season. He did produce five assists and a plus-3 rating in five playoff games before getting hurt. He had surgery on the shoulder in March, and has since resumed offseason workouts and skating on his own.
He didn't work out for teams at the NHL Scouting Combine, and said he doesn't have any expectations at the draft.
"It doesn't matter," he said. "I hope I can play in the NHL … that's the one goal. Playing against men for two years in Finland really helped. I really gained valuable experience and that should help me."
It will be interesting to see if Barkov is the first European player off the board since Russia's Valeri Nichushkin, who played with Chelyabinsk of the Kontinental Hockey League last season, has climbed many draft boards in the second half of the season. Nichushkin is No. 2 on Central Scouting's final European list.
Colorado Avalanche executive vice president of hockey operations Joe Sakic, whose team currently holds the No. 1 pick at the 2013 NHL Draft, said last week Barkov is in the mix of players who could be selected with that top choice.
"The reason we have Barkov ahead of Nichushkin is because he's more of a steady player," Stubb said. "He's just consistent and very steady. But when Nichushkin is at his best, he is by far better than Barkov, but he's not always at his best.
"Barkov is more consistent and has been playing the whole season at a high level in the Finnish league. Nichushkin had a great playoff and was great in February at the Five Nations [Tournament]. They are both excellent hockey players."
One thing is certain. If Barkov or Nichushkin aren't playing in the NHL in 2013-14, they likely will be overseas perfecting their game for one more season.
"I think [Barkov] could play in the NHL next season, but personally I feel it would be better for him to play one more year in Europe," Stubb said.
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer