NEWARK, N.J. — Aleksander Barkov admitted he cheered against the Florida Panthers.
Florida faced his hometown team, Tappara Tampere, in an exhibition game during the Panthers’ trip to Finland for the NHL’s season-opening Premiere series in 2009.
Florida lost the contest 3-2 in a shootout. The International Ice Hockey Federation called it an “historic win,” which marked the first time a Finnish team defeated an NHL squad.
“I was at the game. They played against my dad’s team, and they lost,” Barkov recalled. “It was my first time that I [saw] an NHL team. I was very happy and very excited to be at the game.”
Barkov, at the time, could not have been happier.
“Maybe then, but not anymore,” Barkov said.
Florida selected the 17-year-old with the second pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, giving them much-needed size up the front and switching the Finn’s allegiance in the process.
“I am very excited to be a part of the Panthers organization,” Barkov said. “I have always dreamed about the NHL and playing some day in the NHL. I’ve always liked the Florida Panthers as a team.”
With the Colorado Avalanche having selected standout Nathan MacKinnon with the first overall pick, the Panthers opted to surprise the crowd at the Prudential Center, selecting Barkov over top-rated defenseman Seth Jones and dynamic winger Jonathan Drouin.
The addition fills an immediate need for Florida. Barkov gives them strength up the middle, scoring ability and a left-handed shot.
“He feels he’s ready,” Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. “He’s very confident. Quiet confidence. He’s got size and skill, and he makes other players around him better. He’s very smart. He sees the ice extremely well. That’s what [we] need.”
The Panthers spoke very highly of the Finn born to Russian parents before to the draft. They were tipping their hand, in hindsight.
“He’s one of the guys we’re talking on a minute-by-minute basis right now in our meetings,” head scout Scott Luce told reporters Saturday. “There are no issues with regards to transitioning into the NHL.”
Scouts compare Barkov’s style of play to that of Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf. Barkov has an excellent hockey sense and puck-handling skills, in addition to the size of his 6-foot-3, 209-pound body, which he is not afraid to use. The pivot has not just played among men in Finland for the past two seasons — he’s also been a dominant force.
“The fact he played against men for two years and played in the World Juniors at 15,” Tallon said. “He’s the youngest guy to score a goal in the World Juniors at 15 years old, and played the last two years in the Elite League at 16 and 17 and dominate, get 21 goals and almost a point a game, which is almost unheard of if you’re an older guy.”
In 53 games with Tampere last season, Barkov registered 48 points, ninth among all Finnish Elite League scorers. His 21 goals were seven shy of league leader Juha-Pekka Haataja of Karpat.
“It’s not like he was being carried by older linemates,” Luce said. “He set the pace. He set the tone in every Finnish Elite League game I saw this year that he played in.”
Barkov said he enjoyed watching players like Joe Sakic and Eric Lindros growing up but insists his game is his own. He describes himself as a two-way center with the ability to contribute on the power play, penalty kill and in the faceoff circle.
He considers himself more of a playmaker, but Barkov is also aware he needs to put the puck on the net more often.
“I have always been a passer more,” Barkov said. “I have to shoot more. Then I will score.”
Goals are something Florida, second-to-last in the NHL with 112 goals last season, could definitely benefit from. And Barkov might very well assist in filling that void this coming season.
The center is mending a shoulder injury suffered last year but says he is improving every day. He is able to do resistance and light weight training during physiotherapy. Tallon says Barkov’s rehab is ahead of schedule for the team’s training camp in September.
The timing could not be better as Barkov, who has never been to Florida, will get the opportunity to enjoy the “sun, good beaches, warm weather” the area has to offer as fall arrives.
And he’ll get to do it with his new, favorite team.