12 feet, 9 inches, and 415 pounds comes barreling down the ice.
And that’s not counting the skates and pads.
They may each only have one year of NHL experience under their belts, but the Florida Panthers top two centers look to be bona fide heavyweights, both in skill and stature.
In a league where young talent and talented centers are key ingredients to building championship squads, their presence in the middle of the Cats’ line-up bodes well for the future of the club.
Both Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad had promising rookie campaigns in the 2013-14 NHL season.
The highlights are well-known, and have been oft-repeated, but to provide some summer refreshment:
On October 3, 2013, Barkov became the youngest player to score an NHL goal since 1943, hitting the back of the net in the Cats’ season opener in Dallas
In January, Barkov was named to Finland’s national team for the Sochi Olympics, becoming the youngest player ever named to the squad
In his first full season, Bjugstad led the Panthers in points (16-22-38), shots on goal (185) and game-winning goals (4)
Bjugstad finished fifth in rookie scoring and led all qualifying NHL rookies in face-off percentage (48.9%)
While Barkov’s stat line (8-16-24) was hampered by a knee injury suffered at the Olympics that cut his NHL season to 54 games, he was on pace to put up some impressive rookie numbers. For example:
A full season on his point pace (0.44 PPG) would have translated to a 36-point campaign, placing him well inside the top ten in rookie scoring.
His 288 setup passes (a stat used to estimate the number of passes by a player that led directly to a shot on goal) through 54 games reflected an average of 5.33 setup passes per game. If Barkov maintained that pace for the full 82-game season, he would have finished in the top 50 in the entire NHL. (All advanced stats courtesy of Extraskater.com).
Bjugstad stayed healthy throughout his first full season, playing 76 games. In addition to leading the team in points, #27 led the Cats in both primary assists (13) and primary points (28) in even strength situations. Primary assists are the assists which lead directly to the goal, and primary points represent the sum of goals and primary assists. Many analysts believe primary points offer some insight into how closely a player is involved in the on-ice events that lead to goals being scored.
It is often the case that NHL coaches will “shelter” their rookies, sending them out for favorable matchups against some of the opposition’s relatively weaker lines. This does not appear to have been the case with either Barkov or Bjugstad, each of whom had high quality of competition ratings (above 29%). Despite facing the tough competition, both Barkov (52.1% Fenwick) and Bjugstad (51.1% Fenwick) posted positive possession stats, suggesting that they and their Panthers line-mates were able to generate more shots for then opposed, even when up against tough competition.
In a salary-cap regulated league like the NHL, it is not just stats, but contract terms, that make players valuable to their teams. In the case of both Barkov and Bjugstad, their value to the Panthers’ short-term cap management plans is significant, as each player is still under his respective entry level contract (ELC). Barkov has two years remaining on his ELC while Bjugstad has one year left on his. The league’s collective bargaining agreement limits base salaries for entry level players, providing the Panthers a reward for their astute drafting.
One needs to look no further than the rosters of this season’s Stanley Cup finalists to find entry-level forwards making valuable contributions. The Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers have been helped in their run by the play rookie of center Chris Kreider, who was on a point-per-game pace (10/10) heading into the Final. Similarly, the Western Conference champion LA Kings have relied on rookies Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli (25 combined points through the first 3 rounds). All players are currently playing under ELCs.
How far the Panthers will go in the years to come will depend on the full roster of players that call the BB&T Center home. But with Barkov and Bjugstad slotted in the middle, and with their best days well in front of them, there are certainly some big reasons for optimism in Sunrise.