As NHL teams begin to draft preliminary offseason plans to improve for the 2021-22 season, many have assuredly shortlisted a certain franchise center who may be eager to move on from his chronically losing franchise. Indeed, what does the future hold for Aleksander Barkov?
Sorry, were you thinking of someone else?
Yes, Jack Eichel will enter the offseason as the top storyline. His marketability as an American and the ugly manner in which his tenure in Buffalo appears to be ending justify that, and make no mistake: He's a game-changing, All-Star center who completely alters the complexion of any acquiring team for the better.
Barkov, also a former second overall pick in the NHL draft, had a career year in Florida. His 26 goals ranked fourth among all NHL centers, and he just about matched a career high in points per game. The 25-year-old is set to become an unrestricted free agent in July 2022. Ostensibly, that gives the Florida Panthers a long time to convince him to re-sign. More realistically, the small-market team can't afford to lose him without compensation and probably does not want to endure the 2021-22 season with daily questions regarding the future of its captain.
TSN's Frank Seravalli reported in January that teams were calling Panthers GM Bill Zito to inquire and were "skeptical" that Barkov would want to re-sign in Florida. If Barkov is displaying any resistance to re-signing in the summer then it behooves Zito to at least explore the trade market. If that does happen, then there's a strong argument to be made that Barkov would supplant Eichel as the top player available.
The Situation in Florida
Supplementing Seravalli's report, TSN's Darren Dreger reported in January that Barkov "wants to win" and that he wants to make sure that the Panthers are "on that road to get to that point of being a contending team."
Given his career in Florida so far, that hesitation is certainly warranted. From the 2013-14 season, when Barkov began his career, through 2019-20, the Panthers ranked 22nd out of 31 teams by points percentage. Under the misguided command of former general manager and president Dale Tallon, his teams made the playoffs just once out of those seven seasons, exiting the first round in 2016 after losing in six games to the Islanders.
To new general manager Bill Zito's credit, he's done a remarkable job retooling the team. Faced with a little financial wiggle room, Zito jettisoned a few bad contracts and made some smart low-budget signings. Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe, picked up off the free-agent scrap heap, have both had career years on Barkov's wings. Gustav Forsling, claimed off waivers, has been a phenomenal two-way defenseman. Against most predictions, the 2021 Panthers finished fourth in the league by points and comfortably made the playoffs.
There is still a fair dose of uncertainty about the team's outlook beyond this season, though. The team will remain impaired by multiple undesirable contracts. Keith Yandle, Anton Stralman and Sergei Bobrovsky have declined rapidly and combine for over 25 percent of Florida's cap space next season. After accounting for raises to restricted free agents, Florida will likely only have $3-5 million in cap space to make improvements. The Panthers do have some exciting prospects approaching NHL-readiness such as Spencer Knight, Anton Lundell and Grigori Denisenko, but how soon can they become impact players and will that be enough for the Panthers to compete with Toronto, Tampa Bay and Boston at the top of the division?
What Makes Barkov Different from Eichel?
In terms of actual on-ice output, Barkov has the upper hand early into both of their NHL careers. Over the last six seasons, Barkov (1.00) has registered more points per game than Eichel (0.95). In terms of goals above replacement (GAR), a macro statistic that estimates a player's total contribution to his team over the course of a season, Barkov has been consistently worth more than Eichel except in 2019-20.
In fairness to the younger Eichel, environment matters and Buffalo has been an absolute nightmare. Maybe it's sufficient to note that Barkov has a different playing style that may be of more use to teams in need of a certain skillset.
Both Eichel and Barkov are dual threats (passing and shooting) in the offensive zone who have produced similar point totals. However, the ways in which they generate that offense differ. Eichel demands the puck on his stick and typically operates from the left face-off circle. Barkov meanwhile positions himself more traditionally for a center. He hovers in the slot and, while he's skilled with the puck himself, he's content to let linemates set up the play. Meanwhile, Barkov uses his big frame and quick hands to be dangerous closer to the net. He's a tremendous shooter from in tight and wins a lot of battles to pucks for deflections and rebounds.
Barkov takes far fewer shots than Eichel yet scores at a higher rate. Simply speaking, Barkov not only has a better shot but also generates his shots from more dangerous positions closer to the net.
Another area of the game in which Barkov can affect play in a superior way to Eichel is through forechecking and cycling the puck. Don't confuse this as an assertion that the Buffalo center is "soft." He battles and outworks the opposition in his own way on the ice. Rather, this is a continuation of describing Barkov's superior effectiveness down low and off the puck.
The repeated skill here is Barkov's ability to recycle possession even when his team initially concedes the puck in the offensive zone. Barkov angles his forechecks brilliantly to close off space and then has the strength and stickwork to win back and keep possession. At the best of times, Barkov not only quickly regains possession below the goal line but then quickly flips it up to an open teammate for a quality scoring chance. It's a devastating situation for the opposition team, as they are set up for their own breakout and are in no position to recover and defend the middle of the ice after Barkov takes the puck.
Where Barkov most clearly separates himself from Eichel is on the defensive side of the puck. Truthfully, Barkov's reputation on that front did not match his actual output. Though he was a staunch defensive player in his early seasons, his defensive performance dropped in recent seasons as he stretched his game offensively.
Now in his prime, Barkov has found the right balance and has returned to defensive prominence. He supports the puck down low in his defensive end and uses many of his forechecking skills in the same way below his own goal line. He's incredibly talented at winning back pucks to kill the opposition's cycle and finding outlets out of the zone.
The other impressive aspect of Barkov's defensive game is his positioning on controlled possessions and his ability to prevent dangerous shots.
When the puck shifts to his left, a lesser forward might have panicked and rushed directly toward the puck. Barkov remains calm and collected, and makes the important decision to shift laterally first to take away the shooting lane, then pressures the puck and forces the turnover. It's a subtle read that turns a potentially dangerous screen/deflection opportunity for Columbus into a dead play.
The Rangers are the clear favorites to acquire Jack Eichel, and it would be a massive windfall if they do land him. If the team needs to diversify its player types, then it's a worry for down the lineup. However, Barkov arguably provides more of what the team needs. The team already has some elite talent that creates plays from the perimeter and strikes quickly but needs to add players who can forecheck, defend and penetrate the interior.
There are other teams for whom Barkov might be a more feasible option as a matter of pragmatism. The Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota Wild and Montreal Canadiens will be incredibly eager to make big additions that will help them win in 2022. However, all three teams lack enough quality trade assets to outlast other teams in the Jack Eichel bidding war.
Barkov, if available, won't come cheaply, but the one year remaining on his contract (compared to Eichel's five) would take away much of Florida's leverage.
If teams battling the salary cap like Boston or Colorado go for broke, then Barkov's $5.9 million cap hit next season makes him a significantly more feasible fit, particularly if Florida was willing to eat some of the contract to obtain a better return. There's little chance of Buffalo eating any of Eichel's contract.
Yet the best fit may very well be in Florida. The circumstances warrant a discussion on his future, but Florida deserves its share of respect for the progress made this season and its remaining future upside. Barkov had a career year under head coach Joel Quenneville. If the Panthers can continue to put up a credible fight in the playoffs, the most likely scenario could be a contract extension over the summer.
Information from Evolving-Hockey, Hockey Reference and Hockey Viz were used throughout this article.