There’s a story that a Finnish journalist once told me that I believe sheds a lot of light on Aleksander Barkov’s growth in the NHL. Apparently, in a general cultural sense, Finns don’t like to be embarrassed, so if they’re not good at something, they try not to do it. In the case of Barkov, speaking English was something he was not very good at when he came over to Florida for the 2013-14 season.
For the first three months of the season, the rookie basically just spoke Russian with Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, as Barkov is fluent in that language thanks to his hockey-playing father Alexander, who was born in Novosibirsk.
But eventually, Barkov realized that if he was truly going to make it in the NHL, he would have to take the plunge and speak English. Five years later, he’s the captain of the Florida Panthers.
Debate the importance of the captaincy all you want, but it matters that the Panthers have bequeathed Barkov with the honor.
"He has all of the qualities of a great leader,” said GM Dale Tallon. “Unrivaled work ethic, wisdom beyond his years and the respect and admiration of his teammates. Aleksander’s determination and passion for the game have made him one of the NHL's best and most complete players. The time was right for Aleksander to be named the captain of this franchise and I’m certain that he will bring the same high standard of class and dedication to the captaincy that he brings to the rink every single day."
Giving Barkov the ‘C’ meant taking it away from veteran Derek MacKenzie, though by all appearances, MacKenzie approves of the move. When he was installed as captain in 2016, Florida’s best players were still at the very beginnings of their careers - it would have been folly to bestow the honor on Barkov or Vince Trocheck or Aaron Ekblad at the time.
Now, Barkov is ready. He is entering the prime years of his career with a tremendous amount of momentum thanks to his elite two-way game that surely will see him win a Selke Trophy at some point. He’ll still have veteran leaders such as MacKenzie, Roberto Luongo and Keith Yandle to bounce ideas off, but this is already Barkov’s team.
"I've been fortunate to be able to observe and work with quality leaders and captains like Ed Jovanovski, Willie Mitchell and Derek MacKenzie during my career,” Barkov said. “I love my teammates, we're a tight group and there are a lot of strong leaders in our room. I was very happy when (coach) Bob (Boughner) and Dale told me that I was going to be captain. It's a dream come true to see the captain's 'C' on my jersey."
Now the mission is to get Florida back into the playoffs. Barkov leads a strong offensive attack that includes Trocheck, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov, while the addition of rookie Henrik Borgstrom will help the effort, too. The defense is pretty good and veteran goaltending from Luongo and James Reimer gives the Cats confidence - assuming the netminders can stay healthy.
In a top-heavy Atlantic Division, the Panthers are basically fighting for fourth place behind Tampa Bay, Toronto and Boston. Whether fourth in the Atlantic is good enough for a wild card playoff spot remains to be seen, but with Barkov ascending and his role on the team stitched into his sweater, the Panthers are in a good position to make some noise.