This summer, FanRag Sports took a poll of our contributors to determine the top 25 NHL players under the age of 25. The results are in, and some of them may surprise.
No. 16 — Aleksander Barkov
2016-17: 51 points, 61 games, 19:24 TOI
Career: 171 points, 252 games, 18:23 TOI
Cap Hit: $5.9 million
One of the biggest reasons the Florida Panthers regressed so badly in 2016-17 was the fact that a number of their core players were sidelined for extended periods due to injury. At the top of that list was top-line center Aleksander Barkov, who missed more than 20 games during the season. When he was on the ice, however, everyone in the NHL got a taste for just how good the 21-year-old Barkov is, and how bright his future is.
Barkov is already everything an NHL team wants in its No. 1 center.
You want offense? He has that.
Over the past two seasons he has averaged more than 0.86 points per game, a mark that puts him among the top 20 forwards in the league — and top 10 among centers — during that stretch. He has done that with a mix of playmaking and goal-scoring, coming close to a 30-goal pace per 82 games. The only thing holding him back offensively is the injuries, which forced him to miss nearly 40 games over the past two years.
You want a defensive-minded center who can compete in a 200-foot game and control the play in all three zones? Barkov has that.
From the moment he arrived in the NHL, Barkov had an advanced approach to the defensive side of the game for a player his age, and has steadily improved. Barkov is starting to become a contender for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward, finishing in the top 17 of the voting in each of the past two seasons. In 2016-17, he was among the top 25 players in the NHL with a 55 percent Corsi percentage. The Panthers don’t really use him a lot on the penalty kill but he regularly gets close to a minute and a half of ice time per game in those situations.
You want a player who can handle those big minutes (close to 20 per game) against the toughest competition every night, play a two-way game and still be disciplined enough to stay out of the penalty box? Barkov has that, too, being whistled for just nine penalties over the past two seasons. There is a lot of hidden value in a player who can avoid penalties while also drawing penalties, and few in the league have been better at that over the past couple of years than Barkov.
When assessing his overall body of work, Barkov has shown he already is one of the most well-rounded centers in the league who doesn’t draw much attention because his team that has not had a lot of success recently. And team success is a driving factor in determining how highly regarded some individual players are.
What is perhaps most exciting for the Panthers is that Barkov has become that good before his 22nd birthday. Since most players do not peak until their mid-20s, there is a chance that his best hockey is still ahead of him. The Panthers already have him signed for the next five seasons at a very reasonable $5.9 million per season. That cap hit places him 77th in the NHL, so he probably is outperforming it.
If his game continues to develop and improve as it has over the past few years, he could be a massive bargain for the Panthers.
The Panthers may have taken a step backward in 2016-17 but they do have an intriguing young core of players to build around. Among them is one of the hardest positions to find in the NHL: a two-way, true No. 1 center who not only can score but also plays great defensive hockey. Teams typically can find a player who excels in one area. Finding one who excels in both is rare. If the Panthers can take a step forward this season and put the right complementary pieces around him, it won’t be long before Barkov gets the attention he deserves for being one of the game’s best centers.