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Barkov Waits To Heal To Show Panthers His Game

by Alain Poupart / Florida Panthers
Aleksander Barkov (Getty Images)

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- While the large pool of blue-chip prospects for the Florida Panthers was on display this past week during the team's annual development camp, the latest addition was relegated to the role of spectator.

While Aleksander Barkov did get on the ice for some individual skating on the final three days of the week-long camp, he couldn't take part in any of the practices or the intra-squad scrimmage on the final day because of his continuing rehabilitation from shoulder surgery in March.

Nonetheless, Barkov said he enjoyed the week because it gave him a taste of South Florida and only reinforced the notion that this is where he wants to be this fall. To further cement this point, he signed his three-year, entry-level contract with the team Monday.

"It's great," Barkov said of his first trip to Florida. "It's the first time I'm here and I don't want to leave anymore. It's a nice place and better weather than in Finland. I like it very much."

The Panthers surprised many analysts when they selected Barkov with the No. 2 pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. One of the reasons behind their choice was the belief that Barkov is NHL-ready after playing the past two seasons in SM-liiga, Finland's top professional league.

More importantly, the Panthers loved the fact that the teenager was so eager to come to North America immediately.

"I like his desire to be here," general manager Dale Tallon said during development camp. "He really wants to be a star. He wants to be here and he wants to play right away. It's a little frustrating for him right now that he can't compete with his future teammates, but he's in the gym working really hard and our trainers have worked extremely hard with him. He's excited to be here. He loves it here and wants to stay here. That's a real positive."

Barkov, who had surgery after injuring his shoulder during a playoff game in Finland, said at the draft he was confident he would be ready for the start of training camp in September, and later indicated he would go back to Finland to continue his rehab.

The other blue-chip prospects at the Panthers development camp didn't get a chance to see Barkov in action. First-round picks Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden and Michael Matheson took part in the action, while Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau attended but couldn't skate after undergoing hip surgery after the season.

Instead, the Panthers prospects had to settle for getting a glimpse at Barkov's impressive size (6-foot-3, 209 pounds) and a disposition that belies the fact he won't turn 18 until September.

"He seems like a real good guy," Howden, the third of three first-round picks the Panthers used in the 2010 NHL Draft, said. "Obviously he's going to be a real good advantage to our team. … You can see that he's still got a bit to grow and he's going to be even bigger. That's only a positive."

Before being sidelined last season, Barkov had 21 goals and 27 assists in 53 games for Tappara, and his 48 points were ninth in the league scoring race.

"He didn't take a step back," Tallon said. "He was the second-best player in the Finnish elite league as a 17-year-old, 16 turning 17. He's played two years in that league and he's yet to see his 18th birthday. He feels he's ready. He's very confident -- quiet confidence. He's got size and skill and he makes other players around him better."

"Barkov has never played with his own age group," Scott Luce, the Panthers' director of scouting, said. "He's always played up a year or two. Now he's played two years with men. He's a hockey player. He's a big center. He's got great size, great strength, great hockey IQ."

Barkov said he never was intimidated about playing against men, except maybe "a little bit" the day before his first game.

After finishing with the fewest points in the NHL last season and losing longtime center Stephen Weiss in the offseason, the Panthers clearly could use Barkov's help as quickly as possible.

At the conclusion of the development camp, the other centers on the roster included Shawn Matthias, who was re-signed on the same day that Weiss left; veteran Marcel Goc; and two of the participants in the July practices, Bjugstad and Drew Shore.

How quickly Barkov can get up to full speed could play a large role in whether he'll be in the Florida lineup for the season opener.

"That's always been my dream, to play [in the NHL], and now it's a main goal of my life to play for the Florida Panthers next year," Barkov said. "I'm so excited to get a chance to play. I want to play very much."

That excitement is shared by Panthers officials, who for now just want to see Barkov on the ice ready to compete.

"When you look at his composure and his size, he's way beyond his age as far as maturity," Tallon said. "I'm anxious to get him playing and watch him develop."

Author: Alain Poupart | Correspondent

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