Stop asking if Barkov is underrated and start wondering where he ranks among league's best

It used to be that Aleksander Barkov was considered one of the most underrated players in the league. That time has long since passed, however. Now, he should be recognized as one of the game's top centers.
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Hey everybody, 2016 called and it wants you to stop asking whether Aleksander Barkov is underrated. As Mike Babcock pointed out, Barkov does not ply his trade in the Center of the Hockey Universe™, so the fan identification and appreciation might be lacking. But the question is no longer whether Barkov is underrated, because he is. The more pertinent question is how he stacks up against the best players in the league.

And for those who play both with and against the 23-year-old workhorse center for the Florida Panthers, the answer to that is very, very high. He’s firmly established himself as a point-per-game player. He’s one of the best in the league at both ends of the ice. His ability to be “on the right side of the puck” is uncanny and his ability to think the game at a higher level ensures he’s rarely out of position. No forward in the NHL plays as many minutes as he does and few are as adept at going nose-to-nose with the best players in the world. And more impressively, he manages to do it without taking penalties. Literally. Barkov has zero penalty minutes in 32 games this season. To give you some perspective, Antoine Roussel (76), Brad Marchand (76), Evander Kane (63) and Zack Kassian (60) each has more PIM this season than the 58 Barkov has accumulated in the first five-plus seasons of his career.

“Nobody wants to take penalties and nobody wants to sit in the penalty box,” Barkov said. “I try to play smart and I know when they’re going to call the hooking or the tripping and I just try not to take any penalties.”

And going into Thursday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, he and linemates Jonathan Huberdeau and Mike Hoffman have formed one of the hottest trios in the NHL. He has points in nine of his past 11 games, with 8-7-15 totals in that time span. And with 23:09 per game in ice time, Barkov is earning every penny of the $5.9 million per season he’s earning on what has become a very team-friendly contract. “We wish he could play 60 (minutes) instead of 30,” joked Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo.

That would alleviate some problems for the Panthers, who are once again in serious danger of sliding out of the playoff race. They still have games in hand on many teams, but the grim reality is six teams and seven points stand between them and a post-season berth. That’s a ton of ground to make up in a league where teams are playing three-point games every night. As an example, the Panthers went on a five-game winning streak from Nov. 1 through 13 and dropped from 14th to 15th in the Eastern Conference standings. So they’re going to need to go on some kind of roll to avoid playing nothing games at the end of the season.

The Panthers clearly have to start to get this thing together, if for no other reason than to capitalize on their young talent. Barkov realizes that personal recognition from outside the NHL’s rank and file and the state of Florida will come for him once the Panthers make themselves more relevant. But with Patrice Bergeron injured and Anze Kopitar having a down year, the Selke Trophy is right there for the taking. And considering he plays such an involved game and takes so few penalties, so is the Lady Byng.

“I don’t really care about (the lack of recognition),” Barkov said. “I just try to do my own thing. I just try to win games and win a Stanley Cup with this organization and I’m really happy to be a part of it. I just want to work as hard as possible to be a better player. A lot of guys in this locker room deserve a lot more attention than we have right now. When we start winning games we’re going to get recognized more and more and it will come that way.”

That will perhaps come one day, but the Panthers, and their opponents who have to tailor their game plans to deal with him, are well aware of how good he is. “Listen to me,” Luongo said. “He’s the best two-way player in the game, bar down. He’s smart, especially considering his age to have that level of maturity already. We all know what we have in this locker room in ‘Barky’ and we cherish him.”

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