This comparison should be close. Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche and Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers are only one day apart in age. They were the first two selections in the 2013 draft and they immediately entered the NHL. They play the same position. Both players remain with their original teams. Both are high scorers who receive a ton of ice time. Their salaries are relatively equal. However, I do not believe that the comparison is close. One of the players has established a higher value than the other. Let’s take a look at the reasons why.
Both Barkov and MacKinnon have enjoyed a great deal of personal success. They started their NHL careers immediately after their 18th birthdays. Neither of their teams had qualified for the playoffs during the season prior to their arrival. After playing more than 400 NHL games, Barkov has produced at an impressive rate of 0.83 points per game. MacKinnon has been even better, producing at a rate of 0.88 points per game. Both players have been productive in international competition, Barkov for
Finland and MacKinnon for Canada. Florida has qualified for the NHL playoffs only once during Barkov’s career. He averaged 0.50 points per game in the post-season. MacKinnon has led Colorado to the playoffs three times, averaging almost 1.2 points per playoff game.
There is no uncertainty in this category. Both Barkov and MacKinnon are used as first-line centers. They play in all situations. They both logged more than 22 minutes per game in the 2018-19 regular season. No forward in the NHL played more than 23 minutes per game. In the 2019 playoffs, MacKinnon averaged almost 24 minutes per game. They are both looked on as more than first-line centers by their respective teams. Both Barkov and MacKinnon are considered to be the best players, the “main men,” in Florida and Colorado. In fact, MacKinnon is the only forward in the NHL to lead his team in ice time per game.
MacKinnon’s skating ability, competitiveness, puckhandling at top speed and consistency are all about as good as it gets. But while his hockey sense is good, it’s not at the elite level. He consistently tries to beat opponents 1-on-1 when it is not necessary to do so. He is not a master at buying time to find a trailer on the play. Defensively, his commitment is unquestioned, but while watching replays of several important goals against Colorado in the playoffs, it becomes clear he has a tendency to cover the wrong man, and in some instances, the man he is trying to cover is already marked. Barkov’s hockey sense is so good that it often goes unnoticed. Like other players with elite-level sense, it allows him to produce offensively without much perceived effort. He is like a magician buying time to find open teammates. When his team has control of the puck in the offensive zone, his timing is uncanny – finding a “quiet” area where he can receive a pass for a quick tap-in. Defensively, he is a gambler, but he is one of the best in the league at anticipating blind passes in the defensive zone and sending the play the other way.
Barkov is an above-average NHL skater. He is agile and fluid, with good acceleration and quickness in tight quarters for a big man. His speed is fine but he can’t keep up with MacKinnon, who plays at a pace matched only by Connor McDavid. In the modern vernacular, MacKinnon is always going at “warp speed.” His agility, quickness and acceleration are all at the ultra-elite level.
Many pundits laud Barkov’s defensive abilities and promote him for the Selke Trophy. I scouted a number of Panthers games in the second half of 2018-19, and I do not see what they are seeing. Barkov is really smart. He can steal pucks from unsuspecting opponents. His positional play defensively is fine. However, his commitment level is pretty iffy. He is a big, strong man who often does not bend his back and plays in his own end with one hand on the stick. He does not hit people nor force them to hurry their decisions. MacKinnon is not as savvy as Barkov. He sometimes covers the wrong person in the defensive zone. However, his contribution to the Avalanche’s defensive effort is immense. He does not take even a portion of a shift off. His speed and tenacity when pursuing the puck appear to unnerve the opposition. As a result, they make bad decisions and turn the puck over. MacKinnon, who finished seventh overall in the NHL scoring race receives no statistical benefit from these situations, but the Avs certainly do. In the homestretch of the regular season and in the playoffs, he delivered some bone-jarring checks. He also just missed on a number of others as opponents bailed out or hurried their passes.
CONTRIBUTION TO WINNING
This is where the comparison is not close. MacKinnon is one of a handful of NHL players who can individually change the nature of a game. His style of play energizes his teammates. What MacKinnon has done in the past two seasons is remarkable. He has carried his team on his back in consecutive stretch runs, and the Avalanche made the playoffs both times. They have also had three very good playoff series in the two years. For a number of key games late in 2018-19, the Avs were missing both of MacKinnon’s regular linemates, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. Neither MacKinnon nor the team missed a beat as Colorado finished the year with a 7-1-2 run and grabbed a wild-card spot. In a league where sustained tempo of play has become paramount, McDavid and MacKinnon are at the top of the class. Barkov plays the game at a more deliberate pace. He likes to slow down the action, bide his time to create scoring chances and play in a controlled fashion. His team has been a consistent disappointment the past few seasons. They have poor starts, and then play better once they’re out of contention and the pressure is off. Barkov must bear some of this responsibility. He gets a huge amount of ice time. He has shown occasional bursts of speed, but not on a consistent basis. Barkov has yet to show he can carry a team into the playoffs and have some success once they get there.
Barkov is a smarter player than MacKinnon. That is his only edge. MacKinnon is more productive offensively and more valuable defensively. His overall play makes a far higher contribution to his team’s success. Some critics may say that you cannot use MacKinnon’s playoff success to his advantage in this comparison because Barkov has not had similar opportunities. My response is that MacKinnon’s superior play in the regular season was a huge factor in giving his team those playoff opportunities. Barkov is a very good player, but he has not shown that he can do what MacKinnon does. Nathan MacKinnon is a better and more valuable player than Aleksander Barkov.