CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Aleksander Barkov had just sat down for a haircut on Wednesday afternoon when his phone began to buzz. On the other end of the line was Florida Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon, calling to tell the 22-year-old center that he was heading to the first All-Star Game of his career.
At first, Barkov simply couldn't believe it.
"He called me and told me congratulations," Barkov said. "I didn't expect it."
As a kid growing up in Tampere, Finland, Barkov said the All-Star Game was always must-see television in his household. He'd sit and watch in awe as his hockey heroes, players like Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selanne, competed against and among the best the NHL had to offer. These were the players he aspired to be like, the ones that pushed him to be great.
Now, he was one of them.
"It feels great," said Barkov. "I'm happy to be there. I'm happy to be invited to such a great happening. I feel really, really proud. I think it's going to be nice. It's my first time [as an All-Star], but I've been watching it every year on the TV, especially when I came here."
In the midst of the best season of his career, Barkov has tallied 40 points in 41 games. His 14 goals are third on the Panthers, trailing Vincent Trocheck (17) and Jonathan Huberdeau (16). He's scored in each of the past three games and is on pace to approach 80 point this season, which would greatly surpass the career-high 59 he posted in 2015-16.
But it's Barkov's all-around game that has impressed Panthers coach Bob Boughner the most.
No forward in the league is currently skating more minutes that Barkov, who averages 22:30 of ice time per game - a jump of more than three minutes from last season. A key piece on both of Florida's special team's units, Barkov averages 3:21 on the power play and 1:56 on the penalty kill, where he's scored a league-leading four shorthanded goals. In the face-off circle, he's winning a career-high 53.8 percent of his overall draws, including 57.8 percent in the defensive zone.
"He's been the guy all year for us," Boughner said. "For me, from a coach's standpoint, it's the little things that impress me more than anything. It's not so much the goals and assists, it's the way he draws the toughest assignment every night and finds a way to win it. It's how good his stick is and what he's doing in the face-off circle. The shorthanded goals, shutdown role - that's what's most impressive. Then it's seeing him off the ice, how committed he is as an athlete and the kind of work ethic that he has and what he puts into making himself as good as he is."
Barkov will compete for the Atlantic Division team at the 2018 NHL All-Star game in Tampa on Jan. 28. The four divisional teams - Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific - will play in a 3-on-3 round robin tournament. Each game in the tournament will be 20 minutes in length, with teams changing ends at the 10-minute mark of each game. If a game is tied after 20 minutes, it will be decided by a shootout.
After representing the Panthers at last year's All-Star Game in Los Angeles, Trocheck said he's happy to pass the torch to his teammate.
"It's about time that he kind of get the recognition he deserves," Trocheck said. "I think he's kind of been hurt every year that he's had a chance to go. Obviously if he'd been healthy the last five years he would have been there. It's nice to see him finally get that nod and hopefully he enjoys it."
Barkov will also participate in the NHL All-Star Skills Competition on Jan. 27.
Although the events of the skills competition have yet to be announced, some iteration of the shootout will likely be involved, which has Barkov both very excited and a little bit nervous. Over the past three seasons, Barkov's been the league's most successful and creative skater in the shootout, scoring on 15 of his 21 attempts during that span, including three out of five this season.
But in the All-Star Skills Competition, style counts almost as much as finish. "I think it's going to be even more pressure," Barkov said. "We'll come up with something."
In the age of social media, it's not surprising that Barkov's aptitude for shootout showmanship, rather than his exceptional two-way play, has been what's helped slowly turn the former second-overall pick into a household name. With every deke, dangle and goaltender embarrassment, the flashy Finn now sends Facebook, Twitter and Instagram into a flurry of likes, retweets and shares.
"You see it all over Instagram, Twitter and stuff like that," Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle said. "I'd say after almost every game I'm getting a text from someone I either used to play with or people I know from home saying how amazing of a player he is."
No longer South Florida's best-kept secret, Yandle expects Barkov to shine on the national stage.
"He means everything to us," Yandle said.