It was close to 4 a.m. on Saturday in Tampere, Finland, when Aleksander Barkov officially earned the crowning achievement of his still-young career. The Frank J. Selke Trophy was recognition for the sorts of things the Florida Panthers’ 25-year-old captain has always prided himself on — two-way play, defensive excellence, making everyone around him better — and he awoke to an outpouring of support unlike any he’d ever experienced.
Current and former teammates texted him about his new trophy. Friends and family all congratulated him. Even people he hadn’t talked to in “many years” reached out to congratulate the star center for getting recognition as the NHL’s best defensive forward.
“I got more messages than I did for my birthday,” Barkov said.
It was a fitting end to a season he constantly referred to as the “most fun” he’d ever been a part of. The Panthers set a franchise record for points percentage and finished second in the ultra-competitive Central Division to reach the traditional 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2016. He set a new career high with 0.52 points per game, won a career-best 54.9 percent of his faceoffs and ranked ninth in the league among forwards in time on ice per game.
After seven often-frustrating seasons to start his NHL career, Barkov definitively took the leap to stardom this season and Florida followed him to unprecedented regular-season heights.
Barkov gets long-overdue recognition
For years, most of Barkov’s recognition came in the form of player polls dubbing him the most underrated player in the league. He has still only been to one NHL All-Star Game and his only previous postseason award was the Lady Byng Trophy — the league’s sportsmanship award.
Finally, it changed this year — for Barkov and the Panthers. Not only did Barkov win the Selke Trophy, but coach Joel Quenneville was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award — the league’s coach-of-the-year award — and general manager Bill Zito is a finalist for the Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year Award, which will be handed out Sunday.
“That shows you we did something right this season,” Barkov said. “Obviously, it didn’t end the way we wanted to, but we played a great regular season, we had good games in the playoffs and obviously when you play well, when you have success, the players and the coaches, and GMs—usually, they’re starting to get recognized for the things they do.”
It started from the very beginning of the year. Florida opened the 2020-21 NHL season on an eight-game point streak and was the last team to lose a game in regulation. The Panthers never dropped to worse than third place in the Central and ended the regular season by winning 10 of 12 games to finish with the fourth most points in the league.
How Barkov took the leap
It happened at a potentially pivotal point in his career, too. Florida hired Quenneville ahead of the 2019-20 NHL season and former general manager Dale Tallon touted it as “a new era.” Instead, it was more of the same. The Panthers got to the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs, but only because the league expanded them to 22 teams due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Florida lost in the qualifying round, then didn’t renew Tallon’s contract. When Quenneville and Barkov met for their end-of-the-season exit interview, the coach made it clear “we weren’t satisfied.”
As a coach, Quenneville has a reputation for defense. His teams emphasize puck possession, a tight defensive structure, and, above all else, consistency of effort.
Barkov, in theory, was the sort of star perfectly suited to embody the coach’s style. He always had good possession numbers and typically good defensive numbers, but he knew he had to bring his high level of play more consistently. He got in better shape in the extended offseason, stopped worrying about trying to be a stereotypical outspoken captain and just tried to lead by example.
“You want to do the right things every game, starting from Game 1 until the end,” Barkov said. “I played the way I really wanted to.”
This offseason, though, will be the shortest of Barkov’s career. After using two separate four-month breaks to take a leap this year, he’ll have to regroup quickly for 2021-22 NHL season.
Soon enough, he’ll return to the United States from Finland. Another first-round exit was a sour note to end on. The Selke Trophy — like every other Panthers accomplishment this year — is just a building block toward the ultimate goal.
“After a month, two months or three months, you really want to get back to Florida and see your teammates, and start playing with them and keep it going the same direction we started this year,” Barkov said. “There’s no way we want to stay the same. We want to get better and we need to get better.”