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Colby Guy The Hockey Writers

Published on Monday, March 22, 2021

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Panthers’ Barkov Is a Dark Horse Candidate for the Hart Trophy

When bringing up Hart Trophy candidates, names like Connor McDavid, Patrick Kane, and Auston Matthews are the names that usually come up, but there is one more name that has been forgotten.

On NHL.com’s mid-season poll, those three prior names led in vote totals, but down in the voting is a man who received two points that should very much be in the conversation: Aleksander Barkov.

Barkov’s Florida Panthers are one of the biggest surprises in the league this season, sitting in third place in the entire NHL with a 20-7-4 record, totaling 44 points on the season. The captain has been one of the biggest reasons why the Panthers are where they are.

By definition, the Hart Trophy is awarded to “the player who is deemed most valuable to his team.” Barkov fits that definition perfectly, leading the Panthers in all aspects both on and off the ice.

Aleksander Barkov Florida Panthers
Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Without Barkov, the Panthers wouldn’t likely be in the position they’re in right now. He’s been elite in all aspects of the game this season: scoring, playmaking, and defense. He helps on the power play, the penalty kill, and even strength. Literally every aspect of the game, Barkov has been proficient in, and it is rare to find that in a player. With the Florida Panthers cruising to a playoff spot, Barkov should be in the conversation for the Hart Trophy.

Barkov Has Been One of the Best Goal Scorers This Season

Barkov leads the Florida Panthers in goals with 13, ranking 17th in the entire league, and he does for good reason. He drives play, making some absolutely amazing plays by himself and getting into the right areas to put pucks home.

He is an absolute wizard with the puck and knows exactly how to beat the goaltender. He has the speed to burst past the defense, and at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, he is also a force to be reckoned with in front of the net.

Barkov is one of the most versatile goal scorers in the league, and that’s what has made him so valuable to the Panthers and is why he should be in consideration for the Hart Trophy.

This goal Barkov scored against the Tampa Bay Lightning is the perfect example of how Barkov is able to dominate the opposition and how important he is to the Panthers.

Barkov jumps onto the rush after the defensive zone turnover and uses his speed to get in front of the Tampa Bay Lightning defensemen. As he approaches the net and Brayden Coburn catches up to him, Barkov uses his elite stickhandling skills and patience to bait Curtis McElhinney and send the puck home.

He is the type of player that makes things happen, the focal point of the Panthers’ offense. He is able to make the right plays, and he is also able to be in the right places at the right times to finish plays.

As you can see in this video, Barkov is right where he needs to be to receive that bounce: the front of the net.

He is able to collect the puck off of a funny bounce, and Juuse Saros is absolutely left out to dry there because he is not ready for what Barkov is about to do.

Instead of shooting it immediately as most players would do in this situation, Barkov uses his elite hockey IQ to bait the goaltender. He stickhandles past a diving defender and then roofs a backhander over Saros to pot the goal home and put the Panthers up 1-0, which ended up being the game-winning goal.

Barkov is able to pick apart defenses and score goals in so many ways, and that’s what makes him so valuable to the Panthers. He’s the driving force of that offense, and he is able to make his linemates better, which brings us to my next point.

Barkov’s Playmaking Makes His Linemates Better

While a lot of the top contenders for the Hart Trophy have had the benefit of playing with some elite talent, Barkov has been playing with a lot of guys who struggled to make the rosters of other teams in past years. Namely, Carter Verhaeghe and Mason Marchment. However, Barkov’s playmaking has made even these guys look like superstars.

One of the most telling things about Barkov’s playmaking is the emergence of Verhaeghe. The same player who had just nine goals and four assists in 52 games with the Lightning last season has now emerged as one of the top goal scorers in the league.

Verhaeghe is tied for 40th in goals this season with 12, and a lot of it has to do with Barkov’s elite playmaking.

The focal point of this entire play was Aleksander Barkov. He enters the zone, cycles through, searching for the right pass to make, then resets things when he doesn’t see something he likes.

Barkov enters the zone again, finds a hole he likes and sends the puck right for Verhaeghe to tuck home to give the Panthers a 3-1 lead.

He is such a focal point of the offense that the defense sinks in around him and looks to stop him any way they can, but he can beat them in so many ways that it doesn’t matter who’s on the ice with him; he’s going to make them better.

This theory got tested when Anthony Duclair went down with a lower-body injury and Marchment got a chance to play on the top line. Marchment played some of the best hockey of his career to that point during that stretch, netting a goal and an assist in five games on that line.

Marchment was given the ultimate opportunity of all opportunities here: he was on the ice with Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. With the elite playmaking skill of both men on the ice, he was able to take advantage of the opportunity.

On the penalty kill, Barkov sees Huberdeau breaking out for the odd-man rush with Marchment bursting out the other way and feeds Huberdeau a solid pass to send him out on that rush, making it way too easy for him to break through the defense and pot home a goal.

Barkov is able to see plays before they happen and sends the puck to the right places, making his teammates better in the process. He attracts a lot of attention from the opposition to where he’s able to pick apart the holes and get the puck to his teammates in the right places.

On top of that, Barkov is also elite defensively.

Barkov Is a Force to Be Reckoned With Defensively

The Panthers rank 11th the league in both penalty kill percentage and goals against per game, and Barkov is a huge part of that.

Barkov is absolutely elite at picking apart the other team’s plays and turning them into offensive chances, and that’s what makes him so valuable. He’s always in the right places at the right times and is able to stop a scoring chance before it happens and turn it into an opportunity going the other way.

Barkov is also one of the top faceoff winners in the league, winning 53.2 percent of his faceoffs, also including an impressive 53.1 percent defensive zone faceoff percentage.

This goal is a perfect example of just how impactful Barkov is on the penalty kill, and he’s involved in this play from start to finish. All hockey fans know that the best way to kill a penalty is by having possession of the puck, and Barkov starts the penalty kill off with just what the Panthers needed: a faceoff win.

He carries the puck up the ice and drives the defense towards them, with the defense sinking towards Barkov and covering Noel Acciari, who is crashing the net. That opens up a drop pass to MacKenzie Weegar that Barkov is easily able to slip by. Weegar takes the shot, the rebound breaks loose, and Barkov is in the perfect position to pot home the goal and give the Panthers the lead.

If that goal isn’t the definition of ‘valuable,’ then honestly, I don’t know what is. Barkov has proved time and time again that he is worthy of being in the Hart Trophy conversation, and quite frankly, he’s made his case to be among the league’s best players.


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