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Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov is evolving into one of NHL’s most complete players

Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov is evolving into one of NHL’s most complete players
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Aleksander Barkov has had a long reach since he was a child, but he was using his father s stick then.  (Eliot J. Schechter / GETTY IMAGES)

Sports Reporter

Tues., Feb. 20, 2018

It helps, when it comes to the penalty kill, that Aleksander Barkov is blessed with a six-foot-three frame, a long reach, and elite skating skills.

But it is that reach — and the almost scientific precision with which he uses his stick to check the puck and limit playmaking — that makes Barkov’s penalty-killing skill set more unique than most.

It’s also something the Leafs know, and preach, regularly to their own penalty killers, who happen to be the fifth-rated outfit in the NHL.

“D.J. (Leafs assistant coach D.J. Smith) preaches (getting your) stick on the puck, having your stick on the ice, having it in the shooting lanes,” Leafs forward Zach Hyman says. “It’s important to have sticks on the ice as much as you can to limit the shooting lanes and the space the other team has.”

Barkov rode into the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night with plenty of praise for his abilities. He led the Panthers with 54 points in 55 games, but several stories and analytical studies over the past two months have mentioned him as the NHL’s top penalty killer, as well as a candidate for the Selke Tropy as the league’s top defensive player.

An all-star for the first time in his five-year career, Barkov’s possession figures are standing out, in large part because he’s a positive Corsi player despite his 57 per cent defensive zone start figure.

The Panthers rely on him on the penalty kill, and he’s on the ice for the majority of the team’s key faceoffs. He has posted a career high 54.4 per cent faceoff rate while averaging 22:17 of ice time per game, almost three minutes higher than any of his previous four seasons.

That time on ice leads all NHL forwards, as do his five shorthanded goals.

“I use a long stick, I can cover more ice with it,” Barkov said Tuesday morning, prior to the Panthers’ game against the Leafs. “You’re not just reaching out with your body to cover ice, the stick means a lot there.”

Barkov, only 22 and the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, got some friendly laughs and intrigue from teammates Tuesday morning when he spoke a bit more about using his father’s stick as a four- or five-year-old in Tempere, Finland.

“I mean, my dad’s stick was long, but I was able to use it growing up. I don’t use it now, I have my own, but I have a long reach now and it helps (on the penalty kill).”

Barkov faced the Leafs’ Auston Matthews on Tuesday, a matchup of players who skated in men’s professional leagues at the age of 17.

“They played against men because they were men . . . they may have been (young), but they had men’s bodies at the time,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who praised Barkov’s work ethic while adding he had earned his status as an elite player.

“You look at Barkov . . . he plans on having his job for the next 20 years. You be the best you can every day, and you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.”

The Panthers centre has worked his way into the Selke conversation. He was fourth in the Professional Hockey Writers Association mid-season awards poll, and has been mentioned with the likes of four-time winner Patrice Bergeron of Boston, Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier, Los Angeles’s Anze Kopitar, Ottawa’s Mark Stone and Minnesota’s Mikael Granlund.

One of Babcock’s most frequently mentioned mantras is putting in the work it takes to get better. He met with his one of his own centres, Nazem Kadri, before last season and the two formed a pact to try to get Kadri the Selke award.
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