Vancouver Canucks defenseman Yannick Weber (6) fights for control of the puck with Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) during first period NHL hockey action in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. (Jonathan Hayward/The Ca
AP Photo
January 26, 2016

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) As the Florida Panthers were announcing a deal Tuesday that will pay Aleksander Barkov about $35 million over the next six years, the young center could not wait to get off the dais and back to his routine.

The reason was simple. There was a game to get ready for.

''I feel safe,'' Barkov said, ''but I'm not going to stop working.''

And that sort of thinking is just one reason why the Panthers wasted no time in locking up the 20-year-old, Finnish-born center, who would have been a restricted free agent this summer. Barkov was picked second overall by the Panthers in the 2013 draft, plays on the same line as Jaromir Jagr in Florida now and has 12 goals and 18 assists in his first 38 appearances this season.

The deal was announced a few hours before the Panthers host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night.

''I'm excited about our future,'' Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. ''These decisions aren't made lightly as far as making a commitment to a player. But Sasha is not only a great player, he's one of the best players in the league in all three zones of the ice. Most importantly about Sasha is his character and his passion and his dedication. That made the decision easy to us.''

Keeping him as part of a young core that also includes All-Star defenseman Aaron Ekblad and forward Jonathan Huberdeau - also a linemate of Jagr and Barkov - was a clear priority for the Panthers, and new long-term contracts could be coming before long for forward Vincent Trocheck and defenseman Erik Gudbranson.

''In the past this organization has drafted players, developed them and off they've gone,'' Tallon said. ''It was a cycle that wasn't very effective. The commitment (from ownership) is to build a winning team and win the Stanley Cup. You can't do that unless you lock up your core guys for a long time and be committed to them.''

Florida is in position this year to make the playoffs for just the second time in 15 seasons, and will head into the All-Star break this week atop the Atlantic Division.

''I like to be here,'' Barkov said. ''I like to come here every morning to work hard. It's a good spot for me, the team is going in the right direction and I love it here.''

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