SUNRISE, Fla. -- In his usual quiet, low-key style, Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov called being named to Finland's Olympic team a big dream. Just as quietly, he said it wasn't his biggest goal for this hockey season.
"My first main goal for this season was to play here and get a big role on this team and play as good as I can," Barkov said. "But I'm very happy to be there on the Olympic team and it'll be fun. I was so excited I was called on the Olympic team. It will be very fun to be there and play with guys like Teemu Selanne."
At 43, Selanne is the oldest player in the NHL. Barkov is the youngest, having turned 18 on Sept. 2.
The rookie is meeting his NHL goals so far this season, and then some. Barkov leads the Panthers in scoring with 23 points and is second among forwards in average ice time at 17:09.
Though Barkov looks every bit the teenager outside the rink, he looks like a 30-something veteran on the ice. He has since his first NHL game Oct. 4 when the Panthers beat the Dallas Stars 4-2.
After selecting Barkov with the second pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, Panthers general manager Dale Tallon explained that he was looking for immediate impact and that the big center probably was the most League-ready of all the top prospects.
Not even Tallon, though, could have predicted that Barkov would prove that close to a finished product.
"You never expect that from a kid who just turned 18 in September to be able to have that maturity and that presence on the ice," Tallon said Wednesday, before Barkov scored 32 seconds into the Panthers' 4-2 victory against the New York Islanders. "It's amazing. His maturity and his ability to play at both ends of the ice; it's incredible how smart he is and how conscientious he is. He's just everything and more than we expected."
Barkov has played in all 46 games and has been perhaps the Panthers' best two-way forward all season. After a slow start offensively, Barkov has been putting up points on a regular basis in recent weeks.
Teamed with veteran Brad Boyes and Sean Bergenheim, a fellow Finn, Barkov has four goals and nine assists in the past 15 games to move into a tie for sixth place in the rookie scoring race.
"The first couple of games in the season it was just an adjustment here," said Barkov, whose average ice time is second among rookie forwards behind Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning. "Now I feel good and I can play on my own level."
Barkov finished ninth in scoring last season in SM-liiga, Finland's top professional league, showing he clearly has a high skill level. That’s been evident all season through his deft passing and shootout moves, particularly the one he put on Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard on Dec. 10 when he moved his body to the left before moving the puck to his backhand and sliding it into the open net.
But talk to Barkov's teammates and it's not his playmaking skills they'll point out. Rather, it's his maturity level, no doubt the result of nearly two full seasons in SM-liiga, and also the fact his father, Alexander Barkov
, had a long professional career in Europe.
"It's amazing. For a young kid he's really developed into a good pro already," veteran forward Scottie Upshall said. "I've noticed him. I keep a pretty good eye on him. He's one of the kids in here that I feel like he can learn a lot by looking around at what us older guys do, but he's doing the extra in the gym, he's showing up early, he's staying late. He eats really well. He's just got good professional habits. For a young kid at 18 to already do that kind of stuff, it says a lot. It says that he's going to continue to grow and he's going to be a good pro."
Bergenheim takes it a step further. He began his career with the Islanders and his fifth season with the team happened to be the rookie season of John Tavares, whom New York selected with the first pick of the 2009 draft.
Bergenheim said he can see Barkov developing into the kind of superstar Tavares has become.
"With Tavares, you could see he had that in him," Bergenheim said. "You could see that he had the tools to become one of the best players in the League. But also there you saw that he needed to get adjusted to the NHL one or two years. With Barkov, too, you can just sit in here and wonder what he's going to be in three years. He's so good right now that that improvement that Tavares has made in his game, definitely I see that Barkov has the tools for that."
Center - FLA
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 15 | PTS: 23
SOG: 70 | +/-: -2
When the 2014 Sochi Olympics take place next month, Barkov will be there competing against Tavares and other stars of the NHL.
It's not the typical stuff for a player who just turned 18. In fact, it's pretty easy for everyone who works with Barkov to forget just how young he is.
"We remind ourselves and smile a little bit when we think of it," Panthers interim coach Peter Horachek said. "It's pretty good on his part that he's that mature and can handle the situation."