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Aleksander Barkov on Panthers’ season, the shootout, playing with Jagr (PHT Q&A)

While things are pretty bleak in South Florida, Aleksander Barkov is continuing to shine for the Florida Panthers. The 22-year-old center is having another productive season, which has been buoyed by an increase in ice time.

Over the summer new Panthers head coach Bob Boughner told Barkov that he wanted to give him more time on special teams, and so far through 28 games he’s at career highs in power play (3:39/game average) and shorthanded minutes (1:51/game average). Known for a strong two-way game, being handed more responsibility was music to the young Finns ears.

“I don’t mind it. I like to be on the ice in every situation and try to help the team,” Barkov told Pro Hockey Talk this week. “That’s why I play hockey. I want to be good anywhere, if it’s our own end or offensive zone or face-offs or whatever. I’m trying to get better every day.”

In order to prepare for the bump in ice time and because of injuries that caused him to miss 36 games over the last two seasons, Barkov changed his summer training a bit. He wanted to make himself lighter and faster in order to not expend as much energy on the ice. He focused on running and sprints and increased the amount of stretching, all of which he believes has helped him this year, and he has 10 goals and 27 points to show for it.

We spoke with Barkov earlier this week about his two-way game, his success in the shootout and playing with Jaromir Jagr.

Enjoy.

Q. The team is currently sitting in a position you don’t want to be in at this point of the season. What hasn’t clicked so far?

BARKOV: “Sometimes we’ve been playing pretty well, but that’s not enough. We need to play well all 60 minutes. It’s so tough to win in this league if you [only] play a 40-minute game instead of 60. We have such good teams in this league that can find a way to win games. We just need to concentrate on our own game and try to play our best game every night and give everything.”

Your two-way game is very noticeable and that’s led to some Selke Trophy talk. How much of your off-season work focuses on the defensive aspect of the game?

“It comes with the territory. If you’re in good shape, you can play anywhere, not just offense or not just defense. If you play in your own end for 30 seconds you still have that energy to go in the offensive zone or in the offensive zone you still have energy to go and play in your own end and not let them score on you.”

Along with your minutes your face-off win percentage (55 percent) is up quite a bit as well. Are you approaching face-offs this season using a different technique?

“Actually, I don’t think it’s a different technique, just we have a pretty good coach, Paul MacFarland, who is helping us a lot with face-offs and he’s telling us about other players and how they take face-offs and what should work against them. Of course, a lot of practice and confidence, too. You need that confidence in the face-off [circle] when you’re taking it, you know you’re going to win or at least tie him up.”

You’re at 51 percent for your career in the shootout. Before an attempt, do you have a move in mind that you want to do or do you just react to how the goalie is moving?

“I should have a move in my mind, otherwise it will probably not [be a] goal. If I take the puck and I know what I’m going to do, it gives me a lot of confidence that I can score.”

Is there a move that you’ve worked on in practice and haven’t pulled it out in a shootout yet?

“There’s a couple move but I still need to work on them in practice a couple more times to get confident with the move. Maybe we’ll see one day.”

You’re pretty good with that Kent Nilsson/Peter Forsberg/Jussi Jokinen move.

“Yeah, it’s a pretty good one. I have a long reach so it’s tough for the goalies. I know the goalies are watching videos too and they know that I like to do that so they try to play that way, so I need to create a lot more moves so they won’t know what I’m doing.”

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You got to spend parts of three seasons playing with Jaromir Jagr. With the time you spent on and off the ice, what kind of things did you learn from him?

“He might be the guy I learned the most from. A guy like him, when he came into our team you just couldn’t believe it happened. He was my favorite player when I was growing up and now we’re playing on the same team and maybe even on the same line. It was a dream come true. Of course, playing with him and practicing with him and just being around him, you learn so much, especially about living the life of a professional hockey player and what it takes to be a good player and to get to the top.”

When a guy like Jagr enters the room, a living legend, someone who won Stanley Cups before you were even born, were you nervous around him at first?

“When I first heard he got traded to our team we had a game that night, he wasn’t there yet but still I was thinking about that the whole game. I don’t remember anything about that game except that he got traded to our team. Then he came in an hour before the next game, so they put us in the same line and we never talked before, never did anything before, just go on the ice and I think we created two or three good chances with him during the first shift. Then we just noticed it was so much fun to play with him. He tried to get us a lot better and we tried to get him a lot better, and that’s how we had success.”

Was there one piece of advice that he gave that’s stuck with you ever since?

“If I want to be the best I have to work more than anybody else. It doesn’t mean that I have to go and skate with him at 5 a.m. or 4 a.m., whatever he does. All the time, try to work on your game, try to work on your body and try to be better all the time. Of course, rest is a good thing too. But try to work as much as you can.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Aho reveals offer-sheet decision; Ristolainen to Red Wings?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Sebastian Aho reveals why he signed an offer sheet from the Canadiens. (Sportsnet)

• NHL farm system rankings: Best, worst prospect pipelines for 2019-20, from 1 to 31. (The Sporting News)

• Should the Red Wings trade for Rasmus Ristolainen? (The Hockey Writers)

Matthew Tkachuk‘s agent says they gave the Flames a fair offer back in June. (Sportsnet)

• Overlooked teams in fantasy for 2019-20. (NHL.com)

• The All-Decade Team for all 31 NHL teams. (ESPN)

• Breaking down the format for a potential 2021 World Cup of Hockey. (Sportsnet)

T.J. Oshie is healthy and ready to take another run at the Stanley Cup. (NHL.com)

• When adding staffers, NHL Seattle must navigate complex minefield with those currently under contract elsewhere. (Seattle Times)

• Once healthy, Shea Weber’s value to the Canadiens remained high. (Eyes on the Prize)

• Who are the biggest Penguin killers in the NHL today? (Pensburgh)

• NHL “nowhere near a resolution” on allowing players to compete at 2022 Winter Olympics. (Inside the Games)

• NHL teams as dog breeds: The complete list of hockey dogs. (FanSided)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

NHL Free agent roundup: Islanders re-sign two RFAs; Nichushkin joins Avalanche

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It didn’t involve any of the big names that are still unsigned, but there was some movement on the NHL’s restricted free agent front on Monday afternoon thanks to the New York Islanders, while the Colorado Avalanche took a gamble on an intriguing unrestricted free agent.

Let’s take a look at the signings.

Islanders re-sign Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle

The Islanders reached deals with two of their remaining RFAs when they announced new deals for forwards Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle.

Dal Colle’s contract is a two-year deal, while Ho-Sang gets a one-year deal that will probably be a make-or-break season for him with the Islanders.

Anthony Beauvillier remains the Islanders’ only unsigned RFA at this point in the offseason.

Ho-Sang is the intriguing one here because he has such enormous potential but has not yet put everything together in the NHL or earned the trust of the organization. If he manages to do all of that he could be a huge X-factor for the Islanders this season.

He has 24 points in 53 career games at the NHL level.

The 23-year-old Dal Colle appeared in 28 games for the Islanders this past season, scoring three goals to go with four assists.

Avalanche get Nichushkin

After spending two years in the KHL, Valeri Nichushkin returned to the NHL for the 2018-19 season and signed a two-year, $5.9 million contract with the Dallas Stars.

It proved to be a disappointing and uneventful deal for both sides. He failed to score a goal in 57 games while recording just 10 total assists. His contract was bought out by the Stars following the season, making him an unrestricted free agent.

On Monday, he signed a one-year deal with the Colorado Avalanche with the hopes that he can bounce back.

Nichushkin’s 2018-19 season was one of the most bizarre seasons in league history as he became the first player to ever play at least 50 games in a season while scoring zero goals and recording zero penalty minutes.

After a promising rookie season back in 2013-14, Nichushkin’s development offensively has completely stalled, resulting in just nine goals and 31 assists in 144 NHL games. He is a fine defensive forward but has not shown any ability to make much of an impact with the puck.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Barzal is Islanders’ game-changer

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

The New York Islanders have their share of questions entering the 2019-20 season but there is one thing they can be sure of — they have one of the game’s most exciting young players and a franchise cornerstone in Mathew Barzal.

Even though his point totals may have regressed in year two, the 22-year-old Barzal was the Islanders’ most dynamic and impactful player during the 2018-19 season and is on a trajectory that should take him to stardom in the NHL.

He has an incredible mix of speed, vision, and playmaking ability that makes him perfect for the modern game and a force to be reckoned with when he has the puck on his stick.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

He has already become one of the best and most productive playmakers in the league and could be on the verge of taking his production to an entirely new level based on what he has already done.

Two comparisons to consider for Barzal entering this season.

1.  Over the past two seasons (his first two in the league) he is one of just 11 forwards (minimum 100 games played) that has averaged at least 0.65 assists per game, 0.89 points per game, and posted a 52 percent Corsi rating. The others on that list are are Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, Brad Marchand, Nikita Kucherov, Steve Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Johnny Gaudreau, Mikko Rantanen, Artemi Panarin, and Mitch Marner.

Excellent company to be in, especially when you consider just how young he is and is just now entering his age 22 season.

2. It’s the latter point (his age) that is the key. Barzal is one of just 11 active forwards to average at least 0.89 points through their age 21 season in the NHL, a list that includes Crosby, Stamkos, Marner, Connor McDavid, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, Ilya Kovalchuk, Nicklas Backstrom, Auston Matthews, and Alex Ovechkin.

Marner, Matthews, and Barzal are all the same age, but the other eight combined to score at a 100-point pace in their age 22 season.

The biggest difference between Barzal and most of the players on that list is that he is not quite the goal-scorer that some of them are and is more known for his ability to drive play and set up his teammates, so a lot of his point production will be tied to what the players around him are able to do once he gets them the puck. He can definitely help put them in better positions to score, but it is still up to them to finish the play. It is also possible he could develop into more of a goal-scorer if he takes on more of a shoot-first mentality. He has never been a low-percentage shooter, and while passing and playmaking is his greatest strength offensively, he could probably put himself in a position to average more than two shots per game. Especially if he does not have elite talent around him at the given time.

No matter what direction he takes, Barzal is the Islanders’ best player and the one player that can swing a game in their favor.

His rapid development into a top-line player is one of the reasons the Islanders were able to overcome the free agent departure of John Tavares without completely falling apart. They already had a star on the roster ready to fill that No. 1 role, and his best days are still ahead of him.

This is the hardest type of player to acquire in a rebuild, and it usually takes a top draft pick to get one.

The Islanders were fortunate enough to be able to get one in the middle of the first-round and have the piece they need to build around.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sustainability and Ho-Sang’s development top questions for Islanders

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 New York Islanders.

1. Can they do it again?

After losing John Tavares and not really doing anything significant to replace him on the ice expectations were understandably low for the 2018-19 Islanders. They ended up shattering all of them, made the playoffs, advanced to the second round for the first time since 1993, and were one of the biggest surprises in the league.

The question, then, is obvious: Can they do it again and build off of that success?

The most shocking part of the turnaround was that the Islanders went from being the worst defensive team in the NHL to the best in just one season. That is where the question of sustainability comes in. While it is easy to point to Barry Trotz and his defensive system as the cause of the turnaround, the reality is the Islanders were blessed with an outstanding goaltending performance from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss that masked a lot of flaws. Can Greiss repeat his performance? Can Semyon Varlamov stay healthy enough and be good enough to match what Lehner did? If the answer to those questions turns out to be no, it could put a pretty significant dent in the Islanders’ ability to prevent goals.

This season will be a big test for just how much Trotz’s system and approach really improved the Islanders because they are bringing back largely the same team, except with a potentially lesser goalie.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure]

2. Who is going to score the goals?

It was a good thing for the Islanders that they were so good defensively last year because their offense was not particularly good. They finished the regular season 22nd in goals scored, 29th in shots on goal per game, and 29th on the power play. Among the 16 playoff teams no team was worse in those same areas.

What did the Islanders do to address that this offseason? Nothing.

They did manage to retain all of their top free agent forwards (Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle) but they did not add a significant piece from outside the organization while several teams around them in their own division made significant additions.

There is reason to believe Mathew Barzal can have a bigger season, and that will certainly help. But Valtteri Filppula‘s 17 goals walked out the door in free agency and it seems possible, if not likely, that Casey Cizikas will regress after a completely unexpected 20 goal performance.

3. Will this be Josh Ho-Sang’s year?

One thing that could really help the Islanders’ offense? Josh Ho-Sang putting everything together and becoming a regular in the lineup. Ho-Sang’s young career with the Islanders has been a tumultuous one to this point as he’s never fully gained the trust of any of his coaches (or the organization as a whole) despite having a ton of talent and potential.

His offensive skills have never been in doubt, and he’s actually produced at a pretty solid rate at the NHL level. He has 24 points in 53 career games, a per-game average that comes out to around 37 points over 82 games. It may not seem like an eye-popping number, but keep in mind that only four Islanders recorded more than 37 points last season, and Ho-Sang has produced those numbeers despite getting limited minutes in his brief NHL action.

But his all-around game has never seemed to develop enough for the organization to fully commit to him. He just re-signed on a one-year contract on Monday and can not be sent to the American Hockey League without passing through waivers, so this is probably a make-or-break year for him with the Islanders.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.