Aleksander Barkov and the Panthers stare down the possibility of another lost season

Barkov was in danger of a sixth playoff miss in seven seasons and a promising career stuck in neutral when the NHL closed up shop. He'd do anything for a crack at the big dance whenever play resumes – even it means competing in a play-in tournament.
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Cody Glenn/USA TODAY Sports

Cody Glenn/USA TODAY Sports

It’s entirely possible we see Aleksander Barkov immortalized in the Hall of Fame someday. But it’s also possible we look at back on a career of almosts.

His sublime talent has never been in doubt. He possesses tremendous size, video-game hands and some of the best two-way hockey sense of any forward in his generation. He also battled injuries repeatedly during his first four NHL seasons. In his fifth and sixth, he stayed healthy and broke through as a legitimate front-line NHL star but did so during seasons in which the Panthers started slowly, got hot in the second half and couldn’t do enough in time to make the post-season. Maybe that’s why, even after he was coming off 96 points in 2018-19, fellow NHLers named Barkov the game’s most underrated player a second straight year in The Athletic’s 2019-20 player poll. He’s great, but something always seems to hold him back from breaking through into public consciousness as a superstar. He only has one playoff series to his name, and he hasn’t finished higher than fourth in Selke Trophy voting despite virtually everyone agreeing he’s an elite 200-foot forward.

And this paused season has been a microcosm of his career, really. He was slowed by injury, this time a minor one to his knee. The Panthers, despite gearing up by adding coach Joel Quenneville and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky over the summer, were bouncing around the post-season bubble again. They sat three points back of the Toronto Maple Leafs for the third rung in the Atlantic Division with a game in hand when the NHL paused the season March 12. Would that mean another year in purgatory, a sixth playoff miss in seven seasons for Barkov and another year living in more anonymity than a player of his talent should? We may never know.

Barkov isn’t lamenting what could end up being another lost season for the Panthers. Speaking on a Zoom conference call earlier this week with reps from three of his division rivals, Barkov painted an isolation picture that seems more enjoyable than most. His mom, Olga, lives with him, so he’s got true family company. He has a full gym in his house. He’s really enjoyed the warm weather in Boca Raton, Fla., and was even playing tennis before social distancing made that a no-no. He’s healed that banged-up knee of his, too.

“I have a lot of time to do the rehabs and little workouts for the knee,” Barkov said. “I’m feeling pretty well right now, ready to go, but with what’s going on right now, you’ve got to be patient, try to be in shape and be ready for whatever might happen.”

“Whatever might happen” is right. As of now, it’s too early to forecast the resumption of an NHL season, but it could easily be July or August before any calendar gets reactivated – if at all. Barkov is among the group that thinks players would need to get games in before any “playoffs,” to get their bodies back in shape, but he’s also tempted by some of the high-concept pitches out there, like a play-in bracket.

“The best-case scenario is probably a tournament or something, that’s my thing, but thank god I don’t have to decide anything,” he said. “I’m just here to wait and see what the league is going to do this season and just trying to stay healthy.”

So Barkov will stay in shape, keep hanging with his mom and, of course, log copious amounts of video-game hours. Even pre-isolation, Barkov was one of the most devoted gamers in the sport, so he’s quite comfy battling away at Call of Duty with Panther teammates or friends from home. Forget binge watching. He says he doesn’t watch TV. It's video games or bust.

Even if he’s relatively content during these unprecedented circumstances, though, hockey fans would be happier to see his season play out toward a true ending. Within the overarching stories of everyone missing hockey itself and how COVID-19 affects certain teams, there are smaller plotlines involving specific players. And it will be a shame if Barkov is denied the chance to get himself to the post-season. It’s been a career on the cusp for him. If he wants to embark on the path to winning major individual awards and building a Hall of Fame legacy someday, he’ll need to make a post-season one of these years. Here’s hoping there is one in 2020, even if it doesn't arrive until the humid Florida temperatures hit the summery 90s.

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