The Florida Panthers are fixin' to spoil someone's spring. The Atlantic Division squad is making the Eastern wild card race very interesting right now, going 7-2-1 in their past 10 games and breathing down the necks of Philadelphia and New Jersey - with games in hand on both Metropolitan teams.
A big reason for the upswing in Sunrise is center Aleksander Barkov. He's been great all year for the Panthers, but with 26 points in his past 20 games, he has officially become a point-per-game player for the first time in his career. Even more impressive is that he's doing while playing against the other team's best forwards. The 22-year-old has quickly evolved into an excellent defensive player, prompting his coach to wonder where the award love is.
"He's one of those guys that doesn't get the credit he deserves," said Bob Boughner. "He's having a career year, he's creeping towards the top-15 for scoring and he needs to be at the top of the list for the Selke, that's my opinion."
The Selke Trophy is an interesting one. Awarded to the NHL's best defensive forward, the Selke's main candidates tend to repeat for years. Right now, Patrice Bergeron is the annual favorite, while Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Kesler have also been in the mix (and each won it once themselves). Before that, it was Pavel Datsyuk's personal trophy, while Rod Brind'Amour had back-to-back wins before that.
But look at the Hart Trophy and you'll see eight different winners in the past eight seasons. If Nathan MacKinnon, Nikita Kucherov or Taylor Hall win it this year, you can make it nine. Sergei Bobrovsky is the only two-time Vezina winner in the past eight years and Pekka Rinne will probably win his first this summer.
Which is a long way of saying that Barkov, who has garnered Selke votes in the past, should probably be getting a bit more attention from media voters this season. Yes, he's young, but he's doing a heckuva job. Now, Bergeron has been an absolute beast again this season, so the Bruins stalwart can rightly claim the award, but I'd love to see Barkov as a finalist at least.
And while offense isn't part of the Selke's description, let's acknowledge how fun the Florida center is when he's got the puck on his stick. We've seen the shootout moves, we've seen the immaculate deception - and his playmaking vision is pretty sweet, too.
"It's one of his assets," Boughner said. "A lot of elite players do this: As the puck is coming to him, he's already seeing what is around him and he knows the play he wants to make before it even hits his stick."
Combine that with the way Barkov uses his 6-foot-3, 213-pound frame to shield the puck from defenders and you've got all the makings of a dominant center. Now, will it be enough to launch the Panthers into a playoff berth this year? They're trying to make up a lot of ground late and at least, we can say the effort has been admirable. If you're looking for a moral victory, the team's core for next season and beyond is beginning to round out. Barkov, Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau lead the charge up front, while Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle and Michael Matheson anchor the back end. Meanwhile, Evgenii Dadonov looks better in his second time around as an NHLer than he did in the first and Boughner has been very happy with the Russian winger's compete level.
But Barkov is the man that pulls it all together and as he continues to grow as a player, so will the Panthers. There may even be some individual hardware in his future if he keeps it up.