Earlier this season, Florida Panthers coach Bob Boughner ditched the murky middle ground of optional morning skates and instead began banning them outright. Heaven help any brave soul that dares defy someone nicknamed The Boogeyman, but these team-wide decrees were really directed at one player in particular. All but armed with a padlock and steel link chain for latching the rink doors shut, Boughner found that only ironclad rules could keep center Aleksander Barkov away from the ice.
"He never wants to stay off," Boughner laments. "So I started saying nobody is allowed, just to keep him off."
By now Boughner understands his best player lacks any such off-switch. Through Thursday, Barkov led all NHL forwards in average ice time (22:15) and could become the first to surpass 22:00 across a full schedule since Martin St. Louis six years ago. After Florida hired him last June, one of Boughner's early tasks involved kiboshing Barkov's periodic night-time workouts, for which the 22-year-old would slip into the Florida Panthers IceDen using his employee swipe card and train alone. "Everyone's always on him to take some time off and rest his body a little bit," defenseman Mike Matheson says. "But he doesn't seem to slow down very often."
Take a practice. Any practice. Like Jan. 29, the day after the NHL All-Star Game. Upon meeting his team in Brooklyn, N.Y., Barkov was offered the choice to skip and rest from the hectic travel. Not only did he predictably decline, but he spent an extra half-hour performing individual drills: battling defenseman Alex Petrovic for loose pucks, feeding no-look one-timers to winger Denis Malgin, spinning and shooting from the slot with Matheson draped on his back. Rarely did an idle moment pass without Barkov stickhandling to stay busy, either.
Seventy minutes after practice began, much to the delight of an increasingly impatient Zamboni crew, Barkov finally leaves the ice. In the visiting locker room, he peels off his practice gear and reveals the truth. "I don't know if somebody believes," he says, "but yes I do rest." For instance, he will grab coffee at one of south Florida's many sprawling malls and relax by himself, anonymous amid the bustle. Often he zones out playing Call of Duty on PlayStation, though fellow Finnish forward Henrik Haapala describes Barkov's virtual shooting skills as "very bad. He tries to be aggressive, but he quits after three minutes because he goes 5-and-25 [kill-to-death ratio]. That bad."
Fortunately for Florida, currently six points behind the second Eastern Conference wild card entering Friday night’s meeting with Los Angeles, Barkov’s real-life skills are much more reliable. His 5-on-5 shot differential (54.57%) ranks second on the Panthers behind winger Evgeni Dadonov (barely) and no player has generated more raw scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick. This despite taking only 41.41 % of his faceoffs in the offensive zone, the sixth-lowest rate league-wide among forwards with at least 700 5-on-5 minutes. "He's that guy who plays in so many situations," Boughner says. "He does so much for this team."
General manager Dale Tallon compares Barkov's Selke Trophy-quality defensive acumen to Marian Hossa. Boughner likens his lead-by-example approach to Joe Sakic. "I could easily see him as a future captain of this team, because of what he means, how much he cares, what he does off the ice as well," Boughner says. Teammate Vincent Trocheck says Barkov swipes pucks from opponent "with a lot of finesse in a PavelDatsyuk way." And did you catch how Barkovscored this week against Vancouver, fluidly receiving a neutral zone pass on his backhand and simultaneously toe-dragging past defenseman Ben Hutton?
"It was subtle," Trocheck says, "but extremely nasty."
Might as well stamp that motto onto Barkov's forehead. His stick checks, executed with a javelin-sized Bauer model trimmed slightly shorter than his 6'3" frame, are philters for hockey purists. On odd-man rushes he will suddenly look into the stands while firing passes, believing that random, unconventional acts might confuse opposing defensemen. One time his offseason personal trainer, former NHL forward Ville Nieminen, caught Barkov trying to use the plexiglass boards as mirrors to glimpse what was happening behind him. "He does something, and for most people, they'll go, 'Ah, yeah, didn't really mean to do that, it just happened to be really cool,'" Matheson says. "For him, he's legitimately trying to do that. He's pretty special."
This is especially true on shootouts, Barkov's specialty. No doubt you remember the highlights. Gliding parallel to the goal line and making an opposing junior goalie lunge so hard that he drops his stick. Faking a between-the-legs shot against Columbus before roofing a backhander. Banking the puck off his skate for a self-past and dangling around the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist. The one-handed shovel shot that froze Marc-André Fleury, which Barkov then baited in this year's All-Star Game before pulling the puck to his forehand.
"Barkov?" says Fleury, recalling both moves. "Ah, dude. F---. This guy is awesome."
As always with Barkov, though, the results are explained through a detailed process. He often keeps his shootout intentions hidden from teammates until busting them out during practices, but spends hours picturing sequences and seeking inspiration from the internet. In Brooklyn, for instance, he worked on looping the puck into the air before swiftly swatting it down through an opposing goalie's five-hole, like a volleyball player setting and spiking all by himself. "Every time I try to look for new moves on YouTube, there's no new moves," Barkov says. "I've seen everything."
If he wasn't playing hockey, Barkov figures that he would tap into that bottomless imagination and "probably create some stuff." But that alternate reality seems impossible. The son of the Russian-born Alexander Barkov, a former forward in Finland's Liiga and current coach overseas, the younger Barkov was born with hard work in his blood. One night during the '04-05 lockout, Nieminen was back home in Tampere, Finland when he spotted a boy skating alone at a small outdoor rink behind the local school. "How long have you been here?" Niemien asked.
"Oh, about an hour already," replied nine-year-old Aleksander, who happily spent another hour passing and shooting with Nieminen.
If Barkov inherited that tireless ethic from his father, who still texts observations after every Panthers game, then it was later reinforced in Florida by the NHL's Father Time. For two and a half seasons, Barkov shadowed Jaromir Jagr like a baby duckling, mining a workout legend for new drills. Now Barkov wears weighted vests and sticks to train, conducts shuttle sprints between the red and blue line after practice, and precedes them by shooting a six-pound medicine ball against a concrete wall too. "He's the guy who probably helped me almost more than anyone else," Barkov says. "He taught me that if you want to be one of the best, you have to work out more than others do, and smarter. I try to do what he says. I don't think that he's lying."
Make no mistake, though: Barkov isn't some hockey robot, programmed without any additional functions. He possesses a wry sense of humor; winger Jonathan Huberdeau calls him "sneaky funny." Tallon glimpsed this side after the Panthers drafted Barkov second overall in 2013. Watching the team's rookie tournament, which Barkov sat out while recovering from a shoulder injury, Tallon asked Barkov whether the 17-year-old felt confident playing at an NHL pace. Barkov pointed to his surroundings, and then down at the ice. "Boy up here," he said. "Man down there."
According to Trocheck, who earlier this season joined Barkov for a postgame shooting session at BB&T Center, the Panthers' "super quiet" superstar is "finally stepping out of his shell. I think now he's starting to realize how good of a player he is." A turning point, Trocheck believes, came at this year's All Star Game in Tampa, where Barkov dazzled against Fleury in the save streak challenge and played defenseman on a 3-on-3 unit alongside Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel.
"I was like, wow, this big the league and everybody," says Barkov, whose awe even extended to a private police presence that awaited his arrival at the airport. "But I never get used to that kind of thing. It was a little bit weird."
Stranger than backchecking to disrupt a 2-on-1 during an exhibition? Perhaps, though not for fellow Panthers watching from home. "I could tell he didn't want to overstep and try too hard and be a hero," Trocheck says. "He definitely didn't like the fact that he wasn't going 100 percent."
Then again, Barkov is learning to relax, remember? Worried that his client would wear himself down, Nieminen insisted that Barkov cut back on their summer training, which used to include nightly games of floor hockey, indoor soccer and tennis in addition to multiple gym sessions.
"Still he trains twice a day," Nieminen says, laughing. "But now he takes one day a week off."