With names like Filip Forsberg, Taylor Beck, Brendan Leipsic and Jimmy Vesey showing promise as NHL-caliber wings, the Nashville Predators could use a young center capable of leading the way for this team 3-5 years down the road. Aleksander Barkov is not only suited for that job, but he has the potential to become the kind of 1st-line center that Preds fans have long yearned for.
Rated by NHL Central Scouting as the top European skater in the 2013 Draft, Barkov is a 6'2" 205 lb center who finished 9th in Finland's SM-liiga scoring race with 48 points in 53 games, at the tender age of 17. Unlike most of the other prospects in this draft, Barkov is already competing against grown men and succeeding.
Corey Pronman at Hockey Prospectus has a thorough review of his game. The bold sentence is my own emphasis:
He has an incredible amount of patience, vision, and awareness. He can slow the game down and dictate the tempo, as well as be the focal point on the power play. He also has a high level of defensive skill, showing ability at a very young age to be a quality defensive center. He has good technique on faceoffs, as he keeps his hands low, pulling pucks back quickly. Despite having good puck skills, he is not a player who will consistently try to stickhandle around players. He is selective, but he has the talent to create offense out of nothing. Barkov is a big, strong player. He will not crash and bang, but he protects the puck well. His skating is a tick below average. It is possible he could improve to an average skater, but his game will not be predicated on blazing past defenders. When bringing the puck out of his zone, he tends to prefer making a good pass rather than rushing the puck up.
That sentence in bold is what encourages me about how Barkov might fit within the Predators' system. The best puck-handlers in the world will only beat NHL defenders a small minority of the team, so knowing when to apply those skills is essential to Nashville's style. How many times over the years have we heard Barry Trotz bemoan the disastrous effects of a turnover right around the blueline?
Cue the highlight reel...
We see a nice variety of goals here - shots from a decent range, courageous drives to the net, a patient set of hands, and the ability to win puck battles around the crease.
When considering the potential of a prospect, age is a critical factor, and the fact that Barkov is one of the youngest players in this year's class only adds to his considerable upside. A couple months ago Jonathan Willis compared Barkov's production against some of the best prospects to come from Sweden & Finland since 1990, and found that only Peter Forsberg boasted a more impressive resume:
At first, it looks like Barkov performs very well but trails three players - Forsberg and the Sedin twins. However, because the NHL draft cut-off is September 15, the comparison to the Sedins is misleading - with a September 2 birthday, Barkov is at the youngest end of his draft group, while with a September 26 birthday the Sedins were at the oldest end of theirs. In other words, the Sedins are three weeks short of being a full year older than Barkov at the time of these statistics, and so the proper comparison between Barkov and the Sedins is Barkov's draft year versus the Sedins' pre-draft season. At the same age as Barkov, Daniel Sedin recorded 13 points in 45 games in the Elitserien; Henrik Sedin recorded five points in 39 contests.
Granted, the quality of Finland's top league may be in decline (Scott Reynolds at Copper & Blue provides an excellent analysis), but overall it appears that Barkov not only has tremendous potential as a professional, but is already demonstrating it against adult competition.
And hey, if all that isn't enough to excite you, how about a dose of Uncle Bob?
Some scouts have Drouin ahead of MacKinnon, and vice vera obviously, and I know at least one who has Aleksander Barkov ahead of both of them— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) May 27, 2013
A Fine Pedigree
Not to be overlooked is the fact that Barkov will be a second-generation pro. His father Alexander Barkov played 22 years mostly in the Soviet Union and Finland as a high-scoring center. He remained productive late into his career, and finished 13th in SM-liiga scoring at age 37, so Barkov the Younger should have a pretty good understanding of what the life of a pro athlete entails in terms of commitment to conditioning and skill development.
The Total Package
When you put it all together, Barkov represents Nashville's best hope to enjoy the kind of home-grown star quality forward that fans have long wished for. He boasts a wonderful combination of size & skill, and is already delivering on some of that promise in Finland's top pro league. With the Predators, he could theoretically step right into the NHL lineup (getting protected minutes behind Mike Fisher, David Legwand and Paul Gaustad) or spend a season in Milwaukee acclimating himself to the smaller North American rink.
Regardless of where he plays in 2013-2014, Aleksander Barkov would make an outstanding addition to Nashville's organizational depth chart (which is thin at center) for years to come.