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Panthers to hold Barkov out of prospect tournament

by Alain Poupart

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers aren't going to take any chances with top draft pick Aleksander Barkov.

Even though he's been cleared to play following shoulder surgery in April, the Finnish center will not be in the lineup this weekend when the Panthers play host to a prospect tournament at their training facility in Coral Springs, Fla.

General Manager Dale Tallon said he didn't want to take any chances with Barkov, particularly after the injury problems the Panthers had last season.

"Yes, he's ready to go, but we're just making a decision now," Tallon said Wednesday morning. "Why jeopardize anything with three games in three days? He'll be more ready to compete with the big guys 10 days from now.

"We might as well just make sure. There's no sense. An extra 10 days before any really good contact will really help him. He's cleared to play and he's ready to go, but I think we're erring on the side of caution. I'd rather make sure that he's 110 percent and another week or 10 days will make it even better for him."

The Panthers begin their full training camp next week.

Barkov, who turned 18 Monday, was selected second in the 2013 NHL Draft after the Colorado Avalanche took center Nathan MacKinnon at No. 1.

The rookie prospect tournament would have been an opportunity for Barkov to go up against the two players selected immediately after him, Tampa Bay Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin and Nashville Predators defenseman Seth Jones.

"Of course I would like to play against them, but I had this shoulder surgery in April and we have to go slow," Barkov said. "If I had an injury in the rookie tournament, it wouldn't be a good thing.

"I want to do everything [I can so] that they know it was the right decision between me, Jones and Drouin."

Barkov has been skating for a few days in informal workouts that have included veterans Sean Bergenheim and Dmitry Kulikov.

Barkov (6-foot-3, 209 pounds) is expected to be on the Panthers' opening-day roster, but he's not taking anything for granted.

"My only goal at the beginning of the season is to get on the team," Barkov said. "Then if I get on the team, then maybe I'll have other goals."

Tallon said Barkov is a big part of the Panthers' future, along with the 19th pick of the 2010 draft, Nick Bjugstad, who played 11 games for Florida at the end of last season after finishing his career at the University of Minnesota.

Bjugstad was held without a point in his first 10 NHL games before scoring a goal in the season finale against Tampa Bay.

"With Barkov and Bjugstad, we've got two huge centermen, one a left-hand shot, one a right-hand shot, that could be the future of this franchise, the core of our franchise," Tallon said. "We're excited about it."

Tallon said there were no guarantees Bjugstad would start the 2013-14 season in the NHL.

"We're going to take our time with him," Tallon said. "It's up to him. If he has a great camp, he stays and plays. If he doesn't, there's nothing wrong with him going down to the American [Hockey] League and learning his craft."

Another 2010 first-round pick, No. 25 Quinton Howden, will be playing for the Panthers in the prospect tournament this weekend. He appeared in 18 NHL games last season but failed to score a point.

Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau will not play this weekend. He underwent hip surgery after the 2013 season but should be ready for the start of training camp.

The prospect tournament at the Iceplex starts Friday with a game between the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay at 2 p.m., followed by the Panthers going against Nashville at 6 p.m.

The teams will face each other in a round-robin format through Sunday.

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