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.
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.”
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.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.