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Aleksander Barkov: The Bashful

Barkov evolved into the superstar the Florida Panthers hoped he’d become. But only now, the narrative of Barkov being the NHL’s most under-appreciated player is shifting.
Aleksander Barkov

There is an amazing talent in South Florida you may know little about – Aleksander Barkov. But he prefers you call him ‘Sasha.’

The No. 2 pick in 2013, Barkov evolved into the superstar the Florida Panthers hoped he’d become. But only now, the narrative of Barkov being the NHL’s most under-appreciated player is shifting. “It’s not just me,” Barkov said. “There are a lot of players on our team who deserve a lot more recognition than they get right now.”

The 26-year-old does not dwell on fame. He appreciates the recognition, but he also enjoys living a star athlete’s life without a glaring spotlight.

When he sat courtside to watch the NBA’s Miami Heat in 2018, Barkov became part of the action as Dwyane Wade flew out of bounds and into him. Except in the moment, no one realized Wade’s victim was a star in his own right. After replays aired numerous times the next day, it became apparent the fan was Barkov. “My neighbors know I play hockey, so that’s enough for me,” Barkov said. “The less I get recognized, the more relaxed it’s going to be. I can sit somewhere and nobody knows I’m there. It’s perfect.”

Injuries during his first four seasons kept Barkov from his full potential. A healthy, 96-point 2018-19 season – which followed up a 78-point effort the year prior – put him on the radar. He recorded hat tricks in rare nationwide TV appearances against Toronto and Montreal, the latter including a highlight-reel, between-the-legs goal on Carey Price.

In a win against Minnesota to keep Florida’s playoff hopes alive, he nearly registered seven points but settled for five after the Panthers had two goals rescinded. But the pivot’s efforts – and 92 points by Jonathan Huberdeau – were wasted as the Panthers finished 12 points out of the playoffs. Even after a commitment of more than $125 million by owner Vincent Viola for upgrades that off-season, Florida eked into the bubbled qualifying-round of the 2019-20 playoffs and quickly fell 3-1 to the New York Islanders.

The lack of team success weighed on Barkov. He recalled guidance from former teammate Jaromir Jagr: to be the best, you must work harder and want it more than anyone else. The work needs to be fun; otherwise, you’ll become miserable and tired. “You can have talent,” Barkov said, repeating Jagr’s advice, “but if you don’t work, you’re just going to have the talent.”

Barkov’s peers often credit him with playing “the right way.” To the 2019 Lady Byng winner, that means “trying to do the right things on the ice all the time. Being in the right spot. Making the right decisions.”

“I want to have the superpower Ovechkin has – when it’s time to score a goal, he goes on the ice and scores a goal,” Barkov said. “Everybody wants that superpower, but not everyone has it.”

Instead, Barkov, the 2021 Selke winner, developed his own abilities. He changed his routine and set bigger goals. “My family, my friends, coaches, trainers, everyone, they helped me to get the best of me,” he said. “I think I’m on the right track right now.”

His lead-by-example influence rubbed off on the Cats, who skated to their best campaign in franchise history last season. Embittered by a first-round exit to eventual champ Tampa Bay, Florida then began 2021-22 by posting an eight-game season-opening win streak (tied for fifth-best in NHL history) and tied the NHL record for the longest season-opening home win streak, at 11 games.

In his fourth year wearing the ‘C,’ Barkov’s leadership style has matured. He initially worried about what he should be saying or doing but settled in by “just being myself.” He speaks up more and appreciates veteran teammates for their active roles, too.

Barkov faced perhaps the most emotional challenge of his captaincy in October when former coach Joel Quenneville resigned following the Chicago Blackhawks sexual assault scandal. A devastated Florida team put its seven-game win streak on the line in Detroit less than 24 hours after the coach’s departure. Barkov scored twice, including the OT-winner, in a 3-2 victory. “Those couple days weren’t easy for anyone,” Barkov said. “It’s not easy when things change as they did that day. We still have the right pieces behind the bench, on the ice. We just kept going. We got even closer together. We worked even more for each other. We battled through it.”

Barkov is making an impact of the ice, too. He champions initiatives to support Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, from donations for every point he earns to hosting patients and healthcare workers at home games.

The Tampere, Finland native has given back to his hometown by investing in Liiga’s Tappara, the club he grew up playing for. The funds helped the club move into Nokia Arena, shared with rival Ilves. The facility will host the 2022 World Championship.

Barkov is excited about his future with Tappara but says a more active role is a long way off. He signed an eight-year, $80-million extension with the Panthers in October, and the priority is winning in Florida.

Barkov and the Panthers are finally seeing the desired results. They’re already starting to draw more attention, which ‘Sasha’ is more than willing to share. “As a team,” he said, “if we keep winning games, keep having success, people will recognize us more.” 

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