Back in 2009, Aleksander Barkov attended his first live game involving NHL players. That game saw his hometown Tappara Tampere team take on the Florida Panthers in an exhibition game as Florida opened the 2009-10 season in Helsinki against Chicago. He was 14 years old at the time.
Fast forward four years and the now 17-year old is one of the newest Panthers after being selected with the second overall pick.
"They told me (Saturday) that they are very interested me and maybe will pick me," said Barkov. "Now (that) they picked me, I'm very happy."
With all but Nathan MacKinnon to choose from (gone to Colorado as the top choice), Florida had their choice of Seth Jones, Jonathan Drouin and Barkov among others but went with the top ranked European Skater as their choice.
"It was a tough decision but we need to be strong up the middle. I like big strong centermen that are smart playmakers," said Panthers GM Dale Tallon. "We went back-and-forth for a few days on this one but we felt that he was the most talented guy with size and he's a left hand shot which is something we didn't have in our system."
"It gives us more size. Left hand shot so it's an important day for the franchise."
For Barkov, it was a little bit of a surprise, just as it surprised most of the crowd at the Prudential Center, but the Finnish center was extremely excited to go to Florida talking about his excitement several times after being picked. The 6-3, 205 lb center was excited about heading to South Florida.
"Maybe a little bit but I was so excited," said Barkov on whether he was surprised being taken second. "(It's a) dream come true."
"Big. Strong. Creative. Plays in all three zones. Makes players around him better," said Tallon. "Great vision. Great hands. A rare commodity. We have big with skill that plays at both ends of the ice and it fits in with what we already have coming in our system."
Having a need for size up the middle and with a dynamic player like Barkov was just too much for the Panthers to pass up. Playing in the Finnish Elite League, Barkov was fantastic this past season, producing at almost a point a game. That was what really attracted Florida to chosing "Sasha."
"Sasha Barkov has never played with his own age group," said Panthers Director of Scouting Scott Luce just before the Draft. "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."
|Aleksander Barkov meets Panthers Director of Scouting Scott Luce after being selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. |
Barkov, who turns 18 at the beginning of September, actually has played in the men's league the past two seasons and has more than held his own while playing for his hometown Tampere team.
"He just didn't play. He was one of the best players in the Finnish Elite League," said Luce. "It's not like he was being carried by older linemates. He set the pace. He set the tone in every Finnish Elite League game that I saw this year he played in. He's going to have a great future in the National Hockey League."
"That's not an easy thing to do," said Tallon about his success in the league. "Scoring is a tough thing to do in the big ice and he's able to score goals and set up."
On a line with Ville Niemenen, one of Finland's best players certainly helped Barkov along the way.
"I trained with him last summer and we played in the same line and he gave me a lot of advice and passes," said Barkov who growing up was a huge fan of Joe Sakic and Eric Lindros. "I already played two years against men in Finnish Elite League and very good players. I think it helps me very much."
Barkov has an interesting background. His father, an ex-profesional player and mother are Russian but born in Finland, he's got that blend that gives him the best of both worlds (said to have the Russian flash and the Finnish grit and determination). Barkov was extremely thankful to what his parents did for him.
"He and my mother put me on the skates and gave me a stick and said Go," a wryly smiled Barkov said to the media following being selected. "They helped me very much in my career and I love them."
The Finn posted great numbers in Finland but he's ready to take the next step.
"(It' means) a lot," said Barkov about being drafted. "But that's not enough. I want to play in the NHL and this is the first step of my career.
And that first step will hopefully be this upcoming season as he dons an updated jersey of the first NHL team he saw play live.