SUNRISE, Fla. – The No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, Aleksander Barkov took several big steps in his journey towards stardom during his third season with the Florida Panthers.
The 20-year-old center established career highs in goals (28), assists (31) and points (59) – nearly doubling his production from his first two NHL seasons combined (24-36—60 in 125 GP) – while centering Jonathan Huberdeau and Jaromir Jagr on Florida’s top line.
“I think I have been taking steps every year,” Barkov said of his progress. “I’m being a better player every year and, hopefully, I’m going to be a better player next year. I’m just going to work hard and see what happens.”
“I had great linemates and teammates,” he added. “That’s why I scored goals, that’s why I got assists, and that’s why we win the games. We have a great team and it’s a lot of fun to play with this team.”
In his first taste of the postseason, Barkov notched two goals and an assist while averaging 25:54 of ice time per game – the most among Panthers forwards. His 28 shots were second only to Huberdeau’s 34, and his 53-percent success rate in the face-off circle was bested by only fourth-line center Derek MacKenzie.
And although the New York Islanders eliminated the Panthers from the postseason in six games, Barkov believes that the experience he and his teammates received throughout the heated opening-round series will pay big dividends heading into next season.
“The (playoffs) were a little bit different than the regular season. It was like a battle from the first game until the second overtime in the sixth game,” Barkov said. “It was a great experience for us. It’s a bad thing that we didn’t win; we should have won. It’s a good experience for us and we played good hockey. It was a good lesson for us for next year.”
The only forward to be awarded the infamous “Spacey in Space” sweatshirt, given to Florida’s team-appointed player of the game after each victory this season, on three separate occasions, Barkov continues to evolve into not only an invaluable piece of the Panthers’ on-ice success, but also their laidback off-ice culture.
That being said, the reticent Finn still isn’t ready to spill the beans on what exactly brought the unusual piece of clothing all the way from the dark corners of the Internet and into the Panthers dressing room.
“You should ask (Shawn) Thornton,” said Barkov, flashing a sly grin. “Don’t ask me.”
Barkov is one of three finalists for the 2015-16 Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, awarded “to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”
His eight penalty minutes were a career low and tied for the fewest among the league’s top 50 scorers. More amazing, however, is the fact that Barkov’s eight game-winning goals, the most by any Florida player since 2006-07, equaled the amount of time he spent in the penalty box.
Barkov is the first Panthers player to be a Lady Byng finalist since defenseman Brian Campbell won the award in 2012.
Barkov scored the winning goal with 28.1 seconds left as the Panthers scored four unanswered goals to rally from a three-goal deficit and defeat the Montreal Canadiens 4-3 on April 2.
With the game tied 3-3 in the final minute, Barkov deflected defenseman Aaron Ekbald's shot from the right circle past goaltender Mike Condon for the winner, capping off a career-high four-point night for the third-year center.
"We were thinking about tying the game and win this game and we wanted to win this game," said Barkov, who had two goals and two assists in 19:07 of ice time.
"That's why we won."
GOAL OF THE YEAR
This is one I’m sure you’ve already seen many times.
With the game on his stick in the shootout, Barkov took a couple of strides and played the puck off his left skate before regaining control, freezing goaltender Jacob Markstrom just long enough to pull the puck back to his backhand and lift it under the crossbar, sealing a 5-4 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Dec. 20.