When the Panthers took Aleksander Barkov second overall in the NHL draft, he admitted not knowing much about Florida, save for the usual.
Barkov, born of Russian parents in Finland, found out life in the Sunshine State was more that just beaches and palm trees when he had to visit the Department of Motor Vehicles not once but twice to get his new driver’s license.
“I don’t have a car but I have the license,” Barkov said. “I failed the first time because I didn’t understand the questions.”
Said coach Kevin Dineen: “He’s been able to get out and do some exploring. And he found the great equalizer in life by going through motor vehicles. That’s not easy for anyone.”
Getting his license at the DMV is just one of the things Barkov has to adjust to in his new home. So far, the adjustment period has gone smoothly.
“It’s been a while since I trained with a team, so this has been nice,” Barkov said. “I like it here in Florida, it’s nice. It’s a place I’m going to enjoy living in. Everyone is nice, I have a lot of friends already. They’ve helped me very much.”
On Saturday, Barkov was at front and center in Florida’s first scrimmage of the year. The 18-year-old, like Jonathan Huberdeau last year, is expected to carry a nice piece of the Panthers’ scoring load this season.
Things worked out well for Huberdeau in his rookie campaign as he scored 14 goals in 48 games and was named the league’s top rookie. Huberdeau, who will room with Barkov during road trips, thinks the transition period could be easier for Barkov than it was for himself.
After all, Barkov has been playing professionally in Finland the past two years.
Although the competition isn’t as tough as that in the NHL, Huberdeau figures playing at a high level against more mature players — and succeeding — gives him an advantage over other rookies who might have been playing against younger players at the junior level.
“I think he is more ready to play in the NHL although it will be a different style than he’s used to,” Huberdeau said. “I don’t think people had a lot of expectations on me last year.
“I think the best thing he can do is not put too much pressure on himself. He’s a good guy and I’m going to help him as much as I can. But I think he’s fine. I’ve seen him at practice. He has a lot of skill.”
Playing for Tappara last year, Barkov scored 21 goals with 48 points in 53 games. In Saturday’s scrimmage, he assisted on the game-winning goal, although he missed on an empty-net try.
“He’s been here close to a month now and he’s doing a great job of being part of our team,” Dineen said. “You get out there on the ice and it’s a smaller ice surface [than in Finland], it’s a lot more physical. I don’t think you can practice for that. You have to see that game-to-game when you get in there.”
Barkov is expected to be lined up next to Huberdeau not only early on in his career, but also for many years to come.
Florida could open the season with a top line of Barkov in the middle with Huberdeau and veteran Tomas Fleischmann on the wings.
“You like playing with a guy like that,” Huberdeau said. “He has great hands, great vision. We’ll see where the coach puts him.”
With the Panthers scheduled to play a preseason doubleheader against Nashville on Monday, Dineen said Sunday’s scrimmage would be called off.
The Panthers held an intersquad scrimmage on Saturday morning, with Garrett Wilson scoring off a feed from Barkov in the second 30-minute session to lift his team to a 3-2 win.
Florida opens against Nashville at 2:30 p.m. Monday at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. The second game is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Ed Jovanovski (hip), Huberdeau (hip), Nick Bjugstad (concussion) and Sean Bergenheim (groin) were all held out of the scrimmage.