SUNRISE, Fla. - "Limitless."
That was how Florida Panthers President of Hockey Operations & General Manager Dale Tallon described Aleksander Barkov's potential, suggesting that the 22-year-old center coming off the best statistical season of his career is still just scratching the surface.
After spending his first few seasons as one of the league's best-kept secrets, Florida's top-line center has finally cemented himself as one of hockey's premier players, posting a career-high 78 points (27 goals, 51 assists) in 79 games during the 2017-18 campaign.
Barkov's 51 assists were the third-most in franchise history for a single season.
"What more can you ask of that young man?" Tallon said.
In looking at Barkov's all-around game, Tallon's assessment of the budding superstar certainly holds true, as the former second-overall pick continues to excel at both ends of the ice. He's a demon in the defensive zone, a wizard in the offensive zone and a diligent student of the game away from the ice.
In his fifth season in the NHL, the former second-overall pick controlled play (with a 51.5 Corsi For percentage), won a career-high 53.5 percent of his faceoffs and led the NHL with five short-handed goals. He also ranked 13th among NHL forwards in blocks (67), fifth in takeaways (82) and second in average ice time (22:04).
"I think I got better at everything," said Barkov, whose accomplishments are made even more impressive by his starting a whopping 40.3 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone. "That was my goal. That's my goal every summer and every day I work, I try to get better. Better in everything: skating, shooting, faceoffs and everything like that. I think I got better in every game situation."
An asset in all situations, Barkov averaged 3:23 on the power play and 1:45 on the penalty kill per game. His career-high five shorthanded points paced the Panthers, while his 17 points with the man advantage ranked fourth.
At the 2018 NHL All-Star Game in Tampa, players gushed when asked about Barkov's abilities.
"He's a tough player to play against," Islanders center John Tavares said. "I think he's starting to know his type of game and how he can make the biggest impact out there. He's starting to realize his size and his strength. His awareness and his poise with the puck is among some of the best in the league."
"He's a big guy with a lot of skill, so that's, first and foremost, very tough to defend," said Kings center Anze Kopitar, who Barkov often draws comparisons to. "He's very smooth. It's tough to chase him around like that. Maybe it's for the best that we only play him twice a year."
In addition to his first All-Star nod, Barkov might have one more accolade to add before the league year is out. The soft-spoken Finn is a finalist for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to "the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high stand of playing ability."
Barkov finished second in Lady Byng voting for the 2015-16 season.
"I already can't wait to start the next season with these guys," Barkov said. "Looking forward to playing the same way we played at the end of season because right now we know how hard it is to recover from a bad start, so I think everybody's excited now."
Long live the shootout king.
With a seemingly endless bag of tricks at his disposal, Barkov unleashed some brand new dekes and dangles on unsuspecting goaltenders this season, converting on four of his six opportunities in the skills competition to finish with the sixth-most shootout goals in the NHL.
"I watch a lot of highlights on YouTube of guys like Patrick Kane and Pavel Datsyuk," Barkov said. "I also watch some of my teammates like Radim Vrbata, Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck. I try to learn from those and then try to do them on the ice."
Since 2013-14, Barkov ranks fourth in the NHL with 19 shootout goals.
"He's the shootout king," Sabres forward Jack Eichel said of Barkov at All-Star Weekend.
Video: DAL@FLA: Barkov nets gorgeous backhander in shootout
Barkov tallied two points - including the game-tying goal in the third period - before helping lift the Panthers to a 4-3 win over the Dallas Stars with a clutch shootout goal at BB&T Center on Nov. 14.
In addition to his contributions on offense, Barkov also set a career high for total ice time in this matchup, skating a staggering 28:55, including 5:33 on the power play and 2:35 on the penalty kill. Over the past six seasons, only one forward has registered more minutes in a single game.
Video: Luongo, Panthers take down Stars in 4-3 SO victory
GOAL OF THE YEAR
At 6-foot-3 and 213-pounds, Barkov also has quite a bit of speed to compliment his size.
After taking a pass from linemate Nick Bjugstad, Barkov turns on the jets just past the blue line, slips through a pair of defenders and lifts a backhand shot into the net to give the Panthers a 3-1 lead over the Buffalo Sabres on March 3.
Video: BUF@FLA: Barkov turns on the jets, nets backhander