When the Panthers faced the Nashville Predators on Tuesday night, the biggest storyline clearly was the first NHL confrontation between prized rookies Aleksander Barkov and Seth Jones.
Jones came out on top on the scoreboard thanks to Nashville’s 4-3 victory, but in the big picture the game showed that both the Panthers and Predators came out winners with their first-round selections in the 2013 NHL draft.
Jones really looks good for Nashville. Barkov really looks good for the Panthers. It’s that simple.
Call it a win-win situation all the way around.
Nashville unquestionably got itself a gem with Jones, a smooth-skating and skilled defenseman with a big shot and good passing skills. He no doubt would have looked good in a Panthers uniform.
The expectation on draft day was that the Panthers would take Jones with the second overall pick if the Colorado Avalanche took, as was expected, Nathan MacKinnon at No. 1.
But the choice was Barkov because the Panthers had a bigger need organizationally at center than on defense, especially one year after using their first-round pick on smooth-skating defenseman Michael Matheson.
The 2013 draft seemingly was all about MacKinnon, Jones and Jonathan Drouin, and they were expected to go 1-2-3 — Drouin did go third to Tampa Bay. The only reason Barkov wasn’t in that group was because he played in Finland.
But Barkov doesn’t take a back seat to any prospect.
Barkov already has five points in the first seven games of his rookie season and was a big cause in Florida’s third goal Tuesday night despite not registering a point on the play and he’s already demonstrated some pretty slick passing skills, but there are two significant areas where he really has been impressive.
Those areas don’t show up on the stat sheet and they’re not going to be picked up by the casual observer, but they’re important nonetheless.
First, his work in the defensive zone. Watch a Panthers game and check out how often you see Barkov down low helping out the defensemen. It’s quite remarkable, especially for a rookie.
Second, watch Barkov battle along the boards or absorb a hit. The kid is a rock on skates. He just does not get outmuscled or knocked off his skates. He wins physical battles on a consistent basis.
Oh, and did we mention Barkov just turned 18. He’s actually the youngest player in the NHL, by one day over MacKinnon.
That might be the most impressive fact of all. Barkov is a teenager. But he sure plays a grown-up game.
That’s what the Panthers saw in him after his two years playing in the Finnish Elite League against men twice his age. That’s why they drafted him second overall instead of Jones.
Nashville thinks it has a star in the making with Jones. The Panthers have every reason to feel the same way about Barkov.