When he’s not centering the Florida Panthers top-scoring line, the 20-year-old Finn enjoys life at his home in Boca Raton, spending his free time perusing the stores at a nearby mall or playing video games with friends over the Internet.
Once you put a hockey stick in his hand, however, Barkov transforms into a man among boys as he maneuvers around the ice and past opponents as if a video game controller was dictating his every move.
“It’s getting easier,” said Barkov, who has six goals and 13 points in 19 games this season. “This is my third year here so it’s starting to feel like home. I know the area, the team and the league. It’s a lot easier to be here, but the game is getting harder, so you have to just do everything faster. Every game I’m gaining experience and confidence.”
As reticent as he is talented, Barkov, who spent much of his free time during his first two seasons in South Florida brushing up on his English, still prefers to let his play on the ice do most of the talking for him. But despite this muted persona, Barkov, according to his teammates, still manages to be one of the funniest players in the locker room, mostly because when he does open his mouth it’s usually to unleash a lighthearted jab in their direction.
“He’s a pretty quiet kid,” said notorious wordsmith and teammate Shawn Thornton, who joked that he deserves the credit for Barkov’s improved English. “He’s actually from the same home town as Tuukka Rask. I’ve talked with Tuukka about him, and he told me that he’s even quiet in Finland. He kind of just takes it all in; he’s an observer. That’s why when he does say something it’s pretty spot on.”
In the midst of his second season behind the Panthers bench, head coach Gerard Gallant doesn’t find any fault in the silence of his budding star, noting that even if the two spoke regularly, there isn’t much he, an 11-year NHL veteran, could teach the young centerman at this point.
“There’s not a whole lot of work to do with him,” Gallant said, flashing one of his signature grins. “You leave him alone and let him play his game. We’re happy with him. We don’t have to talk to him too much, and I think that’s how he likes it.
“He’s no maintenance at all for a head coach. You know he’s going to do the right things and he gets himself prepared to play every night. That’s his job and he’s taken it on at a young age. That’s not an easy thing for a young hockey player to do, but he’s doing it.”
As the second overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, Gallant and the rest of the Panthers organization believe that Barkov is only beginning to scratch the surface of the immense talent they hoped the team would be acquiring when they selected the 6-foot-3, 213-pound forward from the top professional ice hockey league in Finland.
The question now is: How good can he become?
If you ask Jaromir Jagr, the ageless sage doesn’t have a definitive answer on the matter. The game simply isn’t as black and white as it used to be for the 43-year-old at this stage of his career. After spending over two decades sharing the ice with legends and grinders alike, he has instead come to the conclusion that the definition of good, much like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.
“What’s the standard to be good?” Jagr asked before spending a few seconds in silence to gather his thoughts. “Honestly, the way (Barkov) plays, the style he plays, I don’t think he’s going to score 50 goals. He plays like (Patrice) Bergeron or (Pavel) Datsyuk, but could also be whatever he wants depending on what the team wants. If you want him to score 50 goals, he would just have to start playing differently.”
Like a ball of clay waiting to be molded, Jagr believes that Barkov has the natural ability to be whatever kind of player he desires. Already widely regarded as the team’s best all-around forward by his teammates and coaches, Jagr insists that Barkov could easily alter his style of play to become a dominant force on either end of the ice if he ever chose to consolidate his efforts into one area of the game.
“He’s got all the talent at just 20 years old,” said Jagr, who has been playing alongside Barkov on Florida’s top line since arriving to the team at last season’s trade deadline. “He’s got the skill, he’s strong, and he’s quick. He can beat can guys one-on-one, but he doesn’t play that flashy game. He’s like an army guy; he’s disciplined. It’s kind of unusual to be that young and have that army-style discipline.”
In a locker room packed to the brim with Stanley Cup champions and former first-round picks, Jagr is just one of several players who have already left an indelible mark on Barkov’s promising young career. He’s often touted as a future finalist for the Selke Trophy, an award given annually to the NHL’s best defensive forward, and is quickly earning the respect of both teammates and opponents.
“He’s really smart and always in the right place,” said Thornton, a former teammate of three-time Selke winner Patrice Bergeron. “People say the puck just goes back to him, but he’s always where the puck is going to be, not where it’s coming from. He’s so skilled. He’s so talented. He’s a lot bigger, obviously, than (Bergeron). He’s got different speeds that he turns on when he needs to.
“I started to get a little more of an appreciation playing with (Barkov) last year. This year, being in and out of the lineup, I’ve been really impressed with how he is on the ice while watching from up top. He’s going to be a really special player in this league.”
Already turning heads in just his third NHL season, Barkov says he is more than ready for the increased exposure that his growing success should garner, hinting, in his own subtle way, that his best hockey is yet to come.
“If you are good, then there’s going to be attention on you,” Barkov said. “I feel a lot more confident that I know what to do on the ice. I’m learning more every day. I’ve learned a lot from every player on this team.”