Nathan MacKinnon and Aleksander Barkov play the same position and were the first two players picked in the 2013 NHL Draft. However, the early days of their NHL careers have seen them take divergent paths.
Those paths will converge Saturday when Barkov's Florida Panthers visit MacKinnon's Colorado Avalanche.
Though they've had strong starts to their rookie seasons, each has been used differently by his team, attesting to the different paths they've taken to reach the NHL.
The first two players picked in the 2013 NHL Draft meet for the initial time Saturday as Nathan MacKinnon's Colorado Avalanche play host to Aleksander Barkov's Florida Panthers. (Photo: Getty Images, Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI)
MacKinnon was taken No. 1 by the Avalanche after a spectacular junior career with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- one that saw him score 77 points in 45 regular-season games, 33 points in 17 QMJHL playoff games and then put up seven goals and 13 points in four games to help Halifax win the Memorial Cup.
Those numbers are overwhelming on the surface, but MacKinnon accomplished that playing a good portion of his games against fellow teenagers.
The 18-year-old forward hasn't scored at quite that level in his first two months in the NHL but certainly has been solid. Entering the matchup with the Panthers on Saturday his nine assists are second among all rookies and his 12 points are tied for second.
"Obviously there's some ups and downs every season, especially with this season," MacKinnon told NHL.com. "But it's gone pretty smooth. It's been the best couple months of my life so far. I love playing in the NHL. I wouldn't trade it for anything right now."
MacKinnon also has a plus-4 rating while averaging 15:11 of ice time per game. That places him ninth among Avalanche forwards in playing time, which is right in line with what the Avs' plan was for him entering the season.
"I want him to have fun," Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said during the summer. "There's going to be enough pressure on him anyway. I know he's going to deal well with it. At the same time, it's important for him to feel comfortable. We need to give him time to adapt and just feel comfortable."
Part of that comfort has come from playing him most of the season at third-line center, which has kept him away from the opposition's top checking lines and best defenseman. According to BehindtheNet.ca, he's started 63.2-percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, second among the team's forwards.
Barkov hasn't scored at the same rate as MacKinnon, but entered the matchup with MacKinnon and the Avalanche tied for seventh among rookies with four goals. He also has four assists while playing 16:20 per game. That number ranks him sixth among rookie forwards, but first among 18-year-olds by more than 40 seconds per game.
While MacKinnon arrived in the NHL a more well-known prospect, Barkov had established himself as a star in SM-liiga, Finland's top professional league, the previous two seasons. As a 17-year-old with Tappara in 2012-13, Barkov was ninth in the league in goals (21) and points (48) in 53 games.
Unlike MacKinnon, who put up his numbers against players his own age, Barkov excelled playing against men who were older, more physically developed and some of whom were current or recent former NHL players.
MACKINNON VS. BARKOV
Playing against that older competition went a long way toward Barkov being able to step right into a top-line role with the Panthers.
"[Barkov] comes from that different background but it's all where he is now and where he's going, and part of that is that history that he has played against men for the last two years and he's done a heck of a job doing that and that's put him in the position he is as a high-end draft pick that's got great potential," former Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said earlier this month.
Barkov may be the youngest player in the League -- he was born Sept. 2, 1995, making him one day younger than MacKinnon -- but he's playing a giant role for the Panthers.
According to DobberHockey.com's line-combination tool, the line of Barkov, Tomas Fleischmann and Brad Boyes has been on the ice more than any other for the Panthers at even strength. Barkov also has been on the Panthers' most-used power-play line.
"[Barkov] hasn't really been given anything this year," Dineen said. "He's come in here, he's shown a level of maturity and poise in his play and that's probably the big word that I would use with him. There's skill there but he does not look uncomfortable in many quality situations out there."
According to BehindtheNet.ca, Barkov has started 61.4 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, second on the Panthers, and he's finished an impressive 54.8 percent of his shifts there, third-most on the team (and a far higher percentage than MacKinnon's 48.5 percent).
"He's a big player who's got really good hands and mature beyond his years as a player," Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz said of Barkov while speaking with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "He's got that man strength at 18."
Barkov also has faced the second-toughest level of competition among Panthers forwards to play at least five games, according to BehindtheNet's stats, while MacKinnon is ninth among the 13 Avalanche forwards to play at least five games.
While they've taken different paths to this first meeting, one other similarity they've shown is both appear to have very bright futures, and their teams have put them in the right situations to foster that growth.