Underrated Barkov logging heavy minutes for Panthers this season

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MONTREAL–When you think of players that play a lot of minutes, you often think of defensemen or, in rare cases, big-name forwards like Edmonton’s Connor McDavid . But there’s a forward in Florida that’s been seeing plenty of ice early on this season.

Heading into Tuesday night’s action, only two forwards have averaged more ice time than Panthers center Aleksander Barkov, who is at 22:48 of action per game (McDavid averages 22:49, while Ryan Getzlaf is at 23:02 but he’s been limited to just two games).

In Saturday night’s win over the Washington Capitals, Barkov played a season-high 26:18, which is unusually high for a guy playing up front, especially in the regular season (the fact that other forwards suffered injuries during that game helped increase Barkov’s workload). He’s played between 20:03 and 26:18 in each of Florida’s seven games. In his last three outings, he’s played at least 24:24.

Panthers head coach Bob Boughner is more than willing to use his number one center at even-strength, on the power play and on the penalty kill. That’s what makes the 22-year-old so valuable to his team.

“He’s obviously a great offensive player, but I think he’s one of the better defensive centermen in the league, as well,” Panthers head coach Bob Boughner said on Tuesday morning. “He’s a great two-way player, a 200-foot player. I think he’s fifth in the league right now in faceoffs. That’s why you see him over the boards a lot on penalty kills, or end of the periods and when we have to throw two centermen out there. He’s real reliable. If you see the way he plays, the pace of his game and how he conserves his energy in the D-zone cause he’s so smart and has such a good stick. Obviously, the offense takes care of itself.”

Boughner’s right, the offense definitely takes care of itself. One of the remarkable things about Barkov is that he’s one of the few players in the league that can produce offense while taking care of the little things that may go unnoticed. Even though he missed 21 games last season, he still managed to put up 21 goals and 52 points in 61 games. This year, he’s up to six points in seven contests.

A lot of talented young forwards come into the NHL and have to learn how to play without the puck, but Barkov has always been a responsible hockey player. He prides himself on it.

“When I was younger, I think I had more defense on my mind,” Barkov told PHT after the Panthers’ morning skate in Montreal on Tuesday. “I didn’t want teams to score on me, but I just feel like my offensive game is coming too. I feel more confident with the puck. But of course, I never wanted to get scored on, that’s one of the biggest things in my game.”

It’ll be interesting to see how Barkov’s body holds up throughout the season. The young veteran is currently in his fifth season in the NHL and he still hasn’t managed to suit up in 82 games yet (54 in 2013-14, 71 in 2014-15, 66 in 2015-16 and 61 last year).

In order to stay healthy and get his body ready for all these big-minute games, Barkov says he focused on strengthening his core and working on his conditioning over the offseason. He kept his weight-lifting to a minimum and made sure to do a lot more running.  Now, he feels lighter than ever, which is helping succeed on the ice. It’s still early, but his positive results speak for themselves.

Despite being one of the bright young stars in the game, Barkov doesn’t grab as many headlines as some other players. Obviously, that has a lot to do with the fact that he plays in a non-traditional hockey market. But if his career keeps trending up, it’ll be hard him not to get more national coverage.

“You know, around the league, people know he’s a good player,” said Boughner. “I’m not sure if he gets the credit the deserves, but he’s definitely an upper-echelon player in the NHL. For us, we all know that, and that’s the most important thing. He means a lot to out team.”

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.