Florida Panthers

This is why Sasha Barkov will help the Florida Panthers stay competitive for years

Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov speaks with reporters during a news conference Tuesday, June 19, 2018, in Las Vegas. The NHL Awards are scheduled for Wednesday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov speaks with reporters during a news conference Tuesday, June 19, 2018, in Las Vegas. The NHL Awards are scheduled for Wednesday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher) AP

For a sports region hungry for stars, for any winner to follow, it’s about time to climb aboard the Barkov express bus.

Florida Panthers center Aleksander ‘Sasha’ Barkov is not only the best player on any team in South Florida, his peers regard him among the Big Three in all of hockey.

“The only two in my mind that I’d put in the same category are [Sidney] Crosby and [Connor] McDavid,” second-line center Vincent Trocheck said Thursday during Panthers media day.

Crosby has led Pittsburgh to three Stanley Cups and won 11 major awards, including MVP (Hart Trophy) twice. McDavid, in three seasons with Edmonton, already has two scoring titles and a Hart Trophy.

Barkov, the soft-spoken native of Finland (son of a former standout Russian player and coach), is still gaining recognition within hockey as a top-tier talent. He earned his first All-Star selection in 2017-18, his fifth season, on the way to a career high of 78 points, including 27 goals.

“He’s a bona fide super star in this league, in my mind,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said, adding, “You’ve got to win to prove that resume, I think.”

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The Florida Panthers’ Vincent Trocheck attended Panthers media day at the BB&T center in Sunrise on Thursday, September 13, 2018. PATRICK FARRELL MIAMI HERALD

After missing the playoffs by a single point last season, the Panthers are counting on Barkov to lead a maturing core of talented young players to the postseason for only the third time in 18 seasons.

It is more than raw numbers that suggest the player they chose with the second pick in the 2013 draft is up to the task.

“He’s probably the most complete player I’ve ever played with,” said goalie Roberto Luongo, who is 39 and beginning his 18th season in the league.

“I’ve played with some great players, but the fact that he’s so good offensively and responsible defensively in his own zone, it’s tough to find guys like that.”

At the still tender age of 23, Barkov is star who plays like a grinder with the maturity of an old soul.

And while teammates make note of his quiet, reserved nature, Barkov is wittier than he seems, if you wait for it.

When told of the compliment paid by Luongo, Barkov said, “Lu can joke sometimes.”

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Florida Panthers team captain Derek MacKenzie does an interview with WSVN during the Panthers media day at the BB&T center in Sunrise on Thursday, September 13, 2018. PATRICK FARRELL MIAMI HERALD

Luongo wasn’t joking when he said, “I still think he’s underrated in the league.”

What of the South Florida fan, starved for excitement, eager for a reason to watch a long-underachieving team in a sport that receives little attention here?

Can the guy dazzle us?

Go on YouTube and search “Aleksander Barkov career shootout compilation” and see for yourself.

Barkov ranks fifth among active players with at least 10 career shootout attempts, converting 15 of 29 (51.7 percent).

He does it with the deftness of a magician, hypnotizing goalies with quick hands and moves of a dancer. And he makes it look so easy.

“It’s getting tough because there’s no new moves in YouTube. I have to create my own,” he said, and shrugged. “Maybe I’ll come up with something.”

At 6-3, Barkov is built like a tight end and skates with the speed of a wideout. He takes pride in defending like a linebacker.

His persistence in every situation and willingness to do the grunt work of killing penalties was evident in leading the league with five short-handed goals last season.

Excelling at both ends of the rink is what sets Barkov apart from most forwards. Teammates say he deserves consideration every year for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the forward who most excels on defense.

That his fourth-place finish in the Selke voting this past season was his highest yet is evidence that appreciation for his game is still catching on.

Trocheck, himself an All-Star two years ago, speaks with admiration of a work ethic that comes naturally to Barkov but was fostered by playing for two-plus seasons with legendary Jaromir Jagr.

“When you see your best player working harder than everybody in the league, everybody under that wants to do that to become what he is,” Trocheck said.

“Obviously, that’s not going to happen for any of us, because he’s incredible.”

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