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Captaincy continues Aleksander Barkov’s growth as a player

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It was Shawn Thornton who requested that Aleksander Barkov move his stall closer to his within the Florida Panthers’ locker room. In Barkov’s second year in the NHL it was Thornton’s goal to get the shy young Finn to show off his personality a little bit more around his teammates.

The move happened and Thornton slowly pecked away and brought more and more of Barkov’s personality out.

“When you sit next to that kind of player and person, it helps you a lot,” Barkov told Pro Hockey Talk on Tuesday. “Even the first couple of days, you’re just shy and sit next to him and answer his questions. Then a little bit at a time you just get out of your shell and start talking to him, joking with him and just have fun with him. That helped me a lot. If you can be good friends with this guy, you can be good friends with everybody.”

That small change allowed Barkov to get comfortable in his early NHL days and was the first step in him feeling confident enough to take on the responsibility of team captain, which the Panthers announced on Monday.

Barkov was approached at the end of last season and asked if he felt ready should they decide to have him wear the ‘C,’ replacing Derek MacKenzie. He said he was ready for the honor but also fine with remaining as an alternate, which he served as last season.

You might think there would be some awkwardness with MacKenzie being asked to give up the captaincy, but when he was given the ‘C’ in 2016 he knew that he was just holding it before one of the team’s younger stars was ready for the responsibility.

[Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov]

So when the change became official, MacKenzie was thrilled to be passing it on to Barkov.

“He called me right away and congratulated me,” Barkov said. “I was really happy to hear him calling me and congratulating me and telling me he’s OK with everything and he’s actually fine with that and he’s going to help me. I learned a lot from him. He’s probably one of the best captains I’ve ever heard in my six seasons here.”

MacKenzie, along with Willie Mitchell and Ed Jovanovski were the three captains Barkov played for since breaking into the NHL in 2013. Each of them has left a lasting imprint on the 23-year-old Panthers star.

“Those three guys, they helped me so much,” said Barkov, who also added that former NHLer Ville Nieminen, who played with Barkov and his father in Finland, was also a big influence. “Not just being a captain, just being great people you can talk to about anything, even if everything is good you can just go to them and talk to them and they’re true professionals. I got lucky to be with them in the same organization.”

Barkov takes on the captaincy at an important time in the Panthers’ growth. He’s coming off a career season offensively and the team missed out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs by a point. Bob Boughner is entering his second year behind the bench, Mike Hoffman was acquired over the summer and highly-touted prospects Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett could make an impact. There are plenty of expectations that the trend continues upwards in 2018-19.

As far as leadership style goes, Barkov doesn’t expect much to change as they look to build off the last few seasons. The only thing that may change is how many dinners he may have to pick up as captain, but MacKenzie didn’t give him the heads up on that.

“No, nobody told me about that,” Barkov said laughing. “I’m just trying to keep quiet so nobody remembers that.”

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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.

Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

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Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

PHT Power Rankings: 10 players who could be traded this season

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It’s the summer and with no regular season games being played it’s awfully difficult to rank the NHL’s 31 teams on a weekly basis. This week we look at more players that could be on the move in trades during the 2018-19 regular season.

The potential class of free agents for the summer 2019 was looking to be an impressive one, with Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, Drew Doughty, Joe Pavelski, Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, and a bunch of other top-line players all eligible to hit the open market. As is always the case when we look ahead to potential free agents, many of them will never get close to reaching unrestricted free agency.

Doughty has already been re-signed by the Los Angeles Kings. Pacioretty was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights and almost immediately re-signed to a new deal. It is really difficult to see Pavelski getting away from the Sharks, and now that Erik Karlsson is there to help form what could be a super-defense, they will almost certainly work to get him signed to a new deal as well.

That obviously puts a big dent in the potential free agent market.

The other factor at play is what all of these potential UFAs mean for the trade market, and we’ve already seen that at play with the recent trades of Pacioretty and Karlsson.

There could be more throughout the regular season.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at 10 pending unrestricted free agents that could be traded this season, starting with a pretty dynamic duo in Columbus.

1-2. Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

What in the world are the Columbus Blue Jackets going to do here?

They should still be playoff contenders this season, but their two best players — and the two players that help make them a playoff contender — are entering the final years of their contracts and it remains to be seen if either one wants to actually re-sign with the team.

This is, pretty clearly, a no-win situation because, again, what in the heck are they supposed to do?

On one hand, you don’t want to put yourself in a position to lose two players of this caliber for nothing other than salary cap space. You also don’t really want a season-long storyline playing out like the New York Islanders went through with John Tavares.

On the other hand, the team with these two should still be good enough to make the playoffs, and you never want to punt on that chance as long as it exists. The key thing to watch here will probably be what sort of season the Blue Jackets are having. As long as they are in contention for a playoff spot and feel they have a chance to make some noise, they’re probably going to see what they can do with this core as it stands.

But if they show any sign of falling out of it or find themselves on the playoff bubble? They almost have to see what the market for these two would be in a trade.

Are they the most likely players to be traded this season? Not at all, because, again, the Blue Jackets should be good. But the possibility that one (or even both) could be on the move is certainly out there. And if they are, they would be the most impactful players available. That is what puts them at the top of these rankings.

As for two players that almost certainly will be traded…

3-4. Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, Ottawa Senators: These two are pretty much guaranteed to be moved, aren’t they?

Derick Brassard, Mike Hoffman and Erik Karlsson are already gone as part of the Senators’ rebuild, and owner Eugene Melynk’s grand plan seems to involve the team having “15 or maybe even 16” new faces on it by the start of next season.

[Related: Stunning one-year rise and fall of Ottawa Senators]

Given the contract statuses of Stone and Duchene, as well as the tear-it-all-down-to-the-ground rebuild that is underway, there is virtually no chance either player remains on the team at the end of this season.

If they somehow make it through the trade deadline without being moved, why would they ever want to re-sign with this franchise?

5-6. Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello, New York Rangers

At this point there is no secret about what Hayes is as a player. He has over 300 NHL games on his resume and his production has been fairly consistent across the board every season. The player you see is the player you are getting, and if the Rangers felt he was a long-term fit beyond this year they probably would have tried a little harder to buy out some of his UFA years in his latest contract. The fact they did not makes him a pretty big trade candidate.

Zuccarello is a little different.

He is 31 years old, he is set to become a UFA after this season, and all of that makes him a logical trade candidate for a rebuilding team. But the Rangers’ rebuild is still tough to get a hold on. This doesn’t seem to be a complete tear down like, say, the Senators, and it seems possible he could remain with the team. He seems to love playing in New York, has said he wants to remain with the team, and he could still be a fit in whatever their plans are.

[Related: Rangers could once again be active in trade market]

7. Brock Nelson, New York Islanders: The Islanders are going to be a fascinating team to watch over the next year because three of their top forwards are all eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season (Nelson, Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle).

They will also have to give their new franchise cornerstone, Mathew Barzal, a new contract at some point over the next two years as he will be eligible for restricted free agency following the 2020-21 season.

It is certainly possible that any of Eberle, Lee, or Nelson could be dealt before the deadline, especially if the team struggles on the ice (and given the makeup of the roster, that seems inevitable). But they have to keep someone. If you were to look today at the most logical trade candidate it might be Nelson because he is probably the least impactful of that trio.

Facing restricted free agency and arbitration this past summer, the Islanders and Nelson agreed to a one-year deal, setting Nelson up for UFA status next summer. That puts him in a nearly identical situation as the one Hayes is in with the Rangers. There is very little secret as to what he is as a player, and if the Rangers were serious about making him a part of the core moving forward they would have tried harder to buy out some of his UFA years. They didn’t.

8. Gustav Nyquist, Detroit Red Wings: As the Red Wings move into the post-Henrik Zetterberg era there are definitely going to be more changes.

The team has committed to its rebuild, and there does not seem to be much sense in them re-signing Nyquist at this point in his career given where the team is going in the short-term and its current salary cap situation. They probably shouldn’t be expected to get quite the same haul as they did for Tomas Tatar a year ago (mainly because Tatar still had four years of term left on his contract and Nyquist is a pending UFA) but he could still be a useful rental for a contender that needs some depth scoring.

[Related: What’s next for Red Wings in post-Zetterberg era]

9. Alexander Edler, Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks spent the summer acting like a team that can make the playoffs, but let’s be honest … they are probably not making the playoffs this year. Edler has been a staple on the Canucks’ defense for a decade and been one of the best and most productive defenders in the history of the franchise. He is the biggest pending UFA the team has and is still a strong top-four defender. His no-trade clause could complicate a potential move as he holds all of the cards in where he goes, but he could help a contender.

10. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres: I know, I know … the Sabres just traded for him. And it was a great move. Skinner is an outstanding player, a great goal-scorer, and will help bring some offensive punch to a Sabres team that needs a lot of help. And the price was certainly right for them not even having to give up their own first-round pick or either of the conditional first-round picks they have from St. Louis or San Jose in 2019 or 2020.

At this point there is no new contract in place for Skinner as he enters the final year of his deal, so that certainly creates an interesting scenario. He is still only 26 years old (and does not turn 27 until May) so he could absolutely still be a part of the Sabres’ core going forward if they can get him signed.

If they can’t, and if the team stinks again, is it really hard to imagine the Sabres trying to make another move? Give how little they gave up to get him in the first place they could probably easily get back equal value at the deadline.

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.

Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

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Often times in the NHL, the captain of a team is one of the better players on the roster. For the last few years, the Florida Panthers had been the exception to the rule, as Derek MacKenzie wore the ‘C’ on his jersey. But on Monday, the organization announced that they were removing the captaincy from MacKenzie and handing it to Aleksander Barkov.

The 23-year-old has arguably been Florida’s best player for the last three years, but the team obviously felt like he was still a little too young to burden such a responsibility. Now, a year after he posted a career-high 78 points and finished fourth in Selke Trophy voting, they feel it’s his time to take up more of a leadership role.

“Aleksander Barkov is ready to be the captain of the Florida Panthers,” GM Dale Tallon said in a release. “He has all of the qualities of a great leader: 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.”

If you’re expecting things to be awkward in the Panthers’ room now that they took the “C” away from one player only to give it to another player, it sounds like you have another thing coming.

“I’ve been honored to serve as Panthers captain and I’m proud to hand the captain’s ‘C’ off to a leader as mature and deserving as Aleksander is,” said MacKenzie. “We’ve got a strong team with a strong group of leaders going into this year and I’m extremely excited to be part of something special.”

Wearing a letter on your jersey in Florida doesn’t come with the same pressure as wearing it in markets like Toronto or Montreal, but it’s still an added responsibility. It’ll be interesting to see how Barkov handles being the guy everyone looks to when things aren’t going well. Of course, that responsibility doesn’t fall on his shoulders alone, but he’s going to be the one that will have to answer all the questions when things go off the rails.

Even though he isn’t the most vocal player in that dressing room, Barkov should be just fine.

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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.

Panthers open training camp, with Bill Torrey still in mind

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CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — The first day of Florida Panthers training camp is always roughly the same: Plenty of players on the ice, plenty of hope for the new season, a bit of organized chaos.

Day 1, this year, was different.

This time, Bill Torrey wasn’t there.

The Panthers opened camp Friday, and in general manager Dale Tallon’s mind, there was a void – off the ice. Torrey, the Panthers’ president in their inaugural season 25 years ago and part of the team’s fabric ever since, died in May at the age of 83. He worked for the team up until his death and was still considered an advisor to everyone in the organization, Tallon in particular.

”He’s here every day in my mind,” Tallon said. ”I’m not getting as many butt dials on the phone, but every day, I miss him. He’s the reason I’m here, basically. He brought me here. He was like a father to me. I miss him, every day.”

Torrey was the first person that the Panthers ever honored with a retired number – 93, to commemorate 1993, the year Florida took the ice for the first time.

Torrey – or Mr. Torrey, as most Panthers employees still refer to him as – spent more than a half-century in the NHL. He was the first person hired by the New York Islanders in 1972, and wound up leading that franchise to four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980 until 1983.

When the Islanders play at Florida on Nov. 10, the teams will honor Torrey’s memory.

”It really hit me when we had our first Board of Governors meeting this summer,” Panthers President and CEO Matthew Caldwell said. ”You send in an attendance sheet and it was the first one we’ve ever done without sending in Bill Torrey’s name. He never missed one. He was such a great representative of the team.”

Teams sit in alphabetical order at the Board of Governors sessions; the Panthers are between the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings. Caldwell said Torrey’s absence was noted not just by the Panthers’ group this offseason, but by those representing the Oilers and Kings as well.

”All of a sudden, this icon’s not sitting there at the table,” Caldwell said. ”That was really tough, tough for the whole franchise. … It was just troubling to go through that, but doesn’t compare to what I’m sure his family is going through.”

Florida reached the Stanley Cup final in 1996 under Torrey, falling to Colorado. Earlier that season, Torrey went into the Hall of Fame as a builder who specialized in taking expansion teams and turning them into quick winners.

The Panthers never won a Cup in Torrey’s lifetime. But Tallon believes the team is on the brink of contending, and decisions Torrey helped make are part of the reason why the club believes they’re on the cusp of turning the corner.

”He’s still there. He’s always there for me,” Tallon said. ”He was the motivating factor for a lot of the stuff that we’ve done here. We can follow in his footsteps, all of us. His class, his passion, he was just a wonderful guy.”

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