FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The "C" on Aleksander Barkov's jersey no longer stands just for captain.
Holding a poolside press conference at a chic hotel nine stories above downtown Fort Lauderdale on Friday afternoon, the Panthers officially announced that the superstar center had put pen to paper on an eight-year contract extension that'll keep him in South Florida through at least the 2029-30 season.
With that, the organization made clear one thing very clear - the "C" now also stands for cornerstone.
"He's the cornerstone that we build around from a hockey perspective, from a culture perspective, from a leadership perspective," said Panthers General Manager Bill Zito, who joined Barkov on stage in front of a throng of media. "I think you're going to find in short order as you talk to his teammates that you'll see it resonate both in the words they use and the tone in the matter in which they use them how appreciated Sasha is as a teammate and as a leader and as an example with his attention to detail."
It's that unmatched attention to detail that has helped Barkov evolve into one of hockey's best.
Arriving to the NHL as a soft-spoken, 18-year-old phenom after being selected by the Panthers with the second-overall pick in 2013, the Tampere, Finland native became the youngest player in more than 70 years to score a goal when he lit the lamp during a 4-2 win against the Stars in his long-awaited debut.
Since then, he hasn't slowed down one bit. Preparing for his ninth season in the NHL, Barkov has tallied 465 points in 529 career games, including 58 points in 50 games this past season. Rewriting the record books along the way, he currently ranks second on the franchise's all-time list in points and assists (284), and needs to score just eight more goals to surpass Olli Jokinen's mark of 187 for the most by a Panther.
Complimenting his elite offensive abilities with all-world defense and exceptional character, Barkov won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy in 2019 as the player who exhibits "the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability," and then added more hardware in 2021 when he finally took home the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the top the league's defensive forward.
Throughout the league's history, only five players have won both the Lady Byng and Selke Trophy.
"I'm going to be here for a long time," said Barkov, who ranks 12th in the league in scoring with 294 points since the start of the 2017-18 season. "Being in the organization that drafted me, that gave me a chance to play here and develop me into the player I am right now and into the human being I am right now, to be able to stay here for as long as possible is a huge thing for me. I've really loved every second here my whole career. I've never thought about anything else other than being here, playing here and trying to win a Stanley Cup here."
Bring the Stanley Cup to South Florida?
It's not as farfetched an idea as it used to be.
Making great strides since Zito's arrival just over 13 months ago, the Panthers have quickly transformed into one of the most-intriguing teams in the league. After finishing with the fourth-best record during the 2020-21 regular season, they then gained national attention when they took the cross-state rival and eventual back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Lightning to six games in their first-ever playoff battle.
Carrying that newfound momentum into the offseason, the organization, much to Barkov's liking, has done everything it can over the past several months to fan the flames of that encouraging resurgence.
Prior to sealing the deal with Sasha, Zito had already extended a multitude of other key players this offseason, including Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair and Sam Reinhart. Add those players to a group that already featured the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar, and it's no surprise that expectations both in and beyond the borders of the Sunshine State are through the roof.
With the 2021-22 season set to get underway on Oct. 14, Barkov believes the best is yet to come.
"I can see how hockey here in South Florida is growing every year and every day," Barkov said. "The organization is doing a really good job with that. Obviously they're building a team that's capable of contending for the Stanley Cup. … The whole environment of this training camp is that you come to the rink and you're prepared to work hard in every practice, every game. When you come to the rink, you know you have a great chance to win. You're confident and you're excited. Being in this last year and right now in training camp, I'm having a lot of fun and really enjoying working hard and trying to win."
Set to become an unrestricted free agent following this season, Barkov's commitment to the Panthers should send shockwaves around the league. Rather than test the open waters, he opted to stay on a boat that he knows is sailing in the right direction. These aren't the Panthers of old, and he knows that.
By putting that belief on paper in the form of a contract, the rest of the league now knows that as well.
"He chose to be here," Zito said of Barkov's decision to re-sign. "He didn't want to pursue free agency. He chose to lock himself for eight years, the maximum amount of time. What's really important for us is that we expand what we're trying to do and get the right players to come here for the right reasons."