Greg Cote

He’s Sasha. He’s Barky. But by any name, he is the Panthers’ great hope to matter again.

Aleksander Barkov, a first-time NHL All-Star at 22, is the great hope to lead the Florida Panthers back to relevance — and to mattering again in South Florida.
Aleksander Barkov, a first-time NHL All-Star at 22, is the great hope to lead the Florida Panthers back to relevance — and to mattering again in South Florida. AP

Sasha will lift this franchise or this franchise will lift Sasha. They both could happen, but one of them must if Florida Panthers hockey is ever to resonate, matter and be embraced again here in the tropics beyond the team’s patiently loyal hard-core following.

Aleksander Aleksandrovich Barkov is a Finn but answers to Sasha, the Russian nickname harking back to his ancestral roots.

“But here in Florida most people call me Barky,” he says, perfect English heavily accented. “I am not sure how this name came about, but I kind of like it.”

He left Finland’s severe winters at 17 and landed in South Florida. His first impressions? “Very much sun, good beaches and warm water,” he said.

He scored his first Panthers goal at age 18 years, 31 days — the youngest to reach an NHL net in 70 years.

Today, a young veteran already in his fifth season and all of 22, he prepares to play in his first league All-Star Game later this month in Tampa, a symbolic affirmation of what we have seen evolving and what Panthers folks have long believed.

This kid is a budding superstar, someone with all the talent to fashion a spectacular career. Someone with hall of fame potential. He has produced 40 points (14 goals, 26 assists) in 41 games. He is just getting started. Neither the Dolphins nor the Heat nor the Marlins have a current player so young with such potential as the teenager the Panthers drafted in the first round (second overall) in 2013.

“He’s going to lead us to the promised land,” says general manager Dale Tallon.

Barkov is the centerpiece of an ascending young core of players that gives the Panthers hope, even as the team sat six points off playoff pace just past midseason entering Friday night’s game. Fellow centers Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck and defenseman Aaron Ekblad are other major building blocks in the long-term plan, all under long-term contracts.

“We’re in a great spot, our future is brilliant,” Tallon said this week. “We want to win the Stanley Cup. The next 10 years should be fun. We’re not far off. And our prospects are doing well.”

Yet as Barkov is at the forefront in lifting the Cats as their only 2018 All-Star, his emerging stardom will be muted and lost nationally — maybe even largely lost in his own market — unless the Panthers find a way to consistently be a force in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That is where stars are minted, where casual fans and even non-fans might open a willing eye to the game. Florida last won a postseason series in 1996, the longest such drought in the NHL. Sasha was on his mother’s knee in Tampere, Finland, as that “Year of the Rat” unfurled and enthralled South Florida, and the team reached the Stanley Cup Finals. Barkov had not yet turned 1.

The Panthers’ 20 years since mostly off the hockey radar is why Barkov remains, in the words of first-year coach Bob Boughner, “the best-kept secret in the NHL.”

As great as Barkov and that young nucleus are, it takes a roster, and Florida still seems shy a couple of key pieces. “Another scorer, a game breaker,” offered Tallon. “And a steady, stay-at-home defenseman that’s had experience.” Florida also needs the return from injury of veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo, out since early December and due back in February.

Mostly, Florida needs that young core fronted by Barkov to continue growing, blossoming.

Call him Sasha. Call him Barky. Call him the future. The young man in charge of finding that elusive promised land is ready to respond.

“I feel like I’m the right spot,” he says, “with the right team.”