Q&A: Aleksander Barkov wants to lead Panthers back to playoffs

Aleksander-Barkov

Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) speaks during NHL hockey media day on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, in Sunrise, Fla. (Brynn Anderson / AP)

1996.

That was the last (and only) time the Florida Panthers advanced out of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The South Florida club hasn’t even had a taste of the post-season since 2015-16 — which was just its fifth appearance in the franchise’s 25 seasons — and failed to qualify for the sixth time in seven campaigns with its 86-point output in 2018-19.

But the tides could be changing.

The Panthers were one of the most active clubs in the off-season, kicking it off by hiring three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville.

Then they spent some serious coin to sign the top goaltender on the market — two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky (seven-year, $70-million deal) — shored up their blue line by adding Anton Stralman and inked depth goalscoring winger Brett Connolly.

Thanks to these moves, the team’s 24-year-old captain, Aleksander Barkov, hopes the Panthers will be playing meaningful hockey come spring.

Fresh off a career-best, 96-point season and a Lady Byng Trophy, the perennially “underrated” — but actually properly rated — star isn’t focusing on proving his worth across the league, but rather leading Florida back to the playoffs.

Sportsnet.ca spoke to Barkov over the phone on Day 1 of the team’s training camp, in a wide-ranging conversation about the Panthers’ off-season acquisitions, coach Quenneville, post-season aspirations, Roberto Luongo’s retirement, the explosion of Finnish hockey and Patrik Laine’s contract negotiations.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity)

Sportsnet: How was the first day of camp for you?

Barkov: Yeah, it was good. … It was a little bit different than all the other ones we had before and a lot of pace and the scrimmage was fun, too. It was a tough day, but everybody enjoyed it. And it was really, really nice to get back on the ice and have real practices, and have fun with the players.

SN: What was your summer like? Any highlights? Did you get away? Go back to Finland?

Barkov: Yeah, I went back to Finland. I was there almost three months with my family and friends, and just enjoyed some time off of hockey. And then I worked out a lot with a group of guys there and came back (to Florida) three weeks ago. And I had one small trip to Italy as well. I’m well-rested and I’m ready to go.

SN: What are the summers like back in Finland?

Barkov: This summer was like really quiet. I stayed a little bit, not in the city, I was like, a little bit away, and I have a summer house there on the lake. I have everything I need there. I have a gym there, tennis court and everything, so I spent most of my time there and didn’t even have to go to the city. So it was really, really quiet. Then, of course, my friends visited me and we played video games together and worked out together.

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SN: What kind of video games are you playing these days?

Barkov: I just downloaded the new NHL. I’ve been playing that for the last couple days. And before that, I kind of switched it up. I played a couple of different games. But now I’m just concentrated on NHL (20).

SN: Do you use the Panthers when you play NHL? Or do you do not like to play as yourself?

Barkov: No, there’s the one like game mode where you create your own guy and then play with your friends (EASHL) online. You do like one team and then you play like that. I don’t really play as myself or any other team. I create my own guy and play there.

SN: You’ve been skating for a few weeks now back in Florida … based on what you’ve seen so far, who has kind of impressed you? And who do you think from the Panthers might be due for a big season this year?

Barkov: I think as a team we can have a really, really good season. Everything is set up for us nicely and we had a couple changes in the team and in the organization this summer. Looking at the first day, I think it was tough, but at the same it was a lot of fun. (There was) good pace and everybody is working hard and enjoying being there … so I think as a team, we’re going to have a big year.

SN: Have any of the young players impressed you? I know Owen Tippett’s trying to crack the team, Henrik Borgstrom’s back, there’s your countrymate Aleksi Heponiemi.

Barkov: Tipett … he’s probably scored more goals than anybody else in practice.

If he’s going to use that in the game, he’s going to score a lot of goals … And Borgstrom: I haven’t seen him yet. We were in different groups. And with Heponiemi, he stayed for one week with me before camp and we worked out together, and he’s looking good.

But yeah, they’re all unreal players and unreal prospects. They have enough skill to play in the NHL and I’m really, really happy for them and for their chance to make the team. And we really could use their skill.

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SN: Speaking of Heponiemi, there’s been an explosion of Finnish talent in the NHL. And, obviously, it was a big summer with Finland winning at the world championships. What’s the long-term goal here? Do you think a gold medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing is within reach?

Barkov: Yeah, it’s still a while until that but, of course … you’re a hockey player, and you want to represent your country and you want to play in the Olympics. I had a chance to play in the Olympics in 2014 in Sochi, and I will never forget those two games I played. And same thing to be able to get a chance to play next time, and who knows what’s going to happen there. But it would an awesome experience to play against the best players in the world and play with the best players in the world. So it’s gonna be awesome. And I see that Finland has a really bright future with their talents, not just in the NHL, even in the Finnish league and junior teams, they’ve been having a lot of success lately, so there are a lot more guys coming up.

SN: (Incidentally) some of those guys … (are among the) big restricted free agents out there who haven’t signed yet, including Mikko Rantanen and Patrik Laine … Did you talk to any of them about their contract situations? Or did any of them reach out for advice?

Barkov: Yeah, I was talking a lot to Laine especially because he’s a really good friend of mine and we’re from the same town and we do a lot of things together. So I talked to him not just about hockey, everything else, too … But those couple of players you mentioned, I think all 31 teams in the NHL want them, so that’s not a problem that their team doesn’t want them. It’s just a matter of time when they get to sign a deal friendly for both sides. Not just friendly for the team or for him, good for both sides and good for the future.

SN: The Panthers have made some big additions in the off-season, including getting Anton Stralman, Brett Connolly and, obviously the biggest one, Sergei Bobrovsky. What did you make of those moves?

Barkov: Yeah, I’m really excited and I think all the other guys are, too. And you can see that in the locker room … I think our chemistry on the team is already really good and we’re enjoying to be around each other and working hard.

Of course, all those additions we had, they’re really good guys. And they fit in really well, so it doesn’t even feel like that they were playing somewhere else. It feels like they had been on our team for a while because they’re all really good guys and really easygoing guys, and work extremely hard.

SN: On the other side, the team had a big subtraction with Roberto Longo retiring. What kind of loss is that and what do you think the room will be like without him?

Barkov: Yeah, it’s going to be a little bit different without him for sure. He’s been here for my whole career with the Panthers and to not to see him in the same spot in the locker room is kind of weird. But we still see him a lot — he’s been around a lot — and it feels like he didn’t even leave, so it is good for us. But yeah, losing that type of goalie is not easy. But we’ve got Bobrovsky now and we’re really happy with him. But yeah, of course, losing Luongo — not just him on the ice, but him off-ice, too — it’s going be weird without him.

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But at the same time, the younger guys, we need to take the next step and lead even more, but I think Bobrovsky is really good with that, too. He’s a really professional athlete. You’re not going to find another one like him. He works really hard. I haven’t seen him anywhere else except the gym and the ice. I mean, it’s really, really good to see him working hard and saying really good things about the team, and saying that he came here to win. And that he thinks that this is a spot to win. And we’re really, really lucky to have him in our net.

SN: With Lu gone, some of the leadership burden shifts to you … This is your second season as the captain of the Panthers. Are you hoping to be more of a voice in the room this year as well?

Barkov: Yeah, and I’m growing up, too. And everybody else is growing too, and we’re getting more experience. Yeah, of course, when you lose a leader like Lu it’s never easy, but at the same time, guys grow up, and guys know that they have to take the next step. And if it’s comfortable for them, it’s gonna be tough. I mean, myself too, I grew up a lot last year. Especially, even this summer, like I knew that, ‘OK, going into the next season, I’m gonna be even more mature and know even more like what to do,’ and stuff like that. So I’m not nervous anymore.

SN: (Another) part of the leadership group has changed. You’ve got a new coach in town — coach Quenneville who comes with a big resume, he’s got the three Stanley Cup rings and a reputation as a player’s coach. Is that the kind of leadership style you like? I know the last time you guys had a player’s coach, Gerard Gallant, was the last time you guys were in the playoffs.

Barkov: Yeah, of course we’re excited. And I’ve said it before, you never want anybody to get fired, or traded or leave your team, it’s not the best-case scenario, but we have to move forward with the decisions that were made.

But we got probably the best coach that was available on the market and for him to come here and say the same things — that he wants to win and sees a lot of potential in our team — it means a lot to us. Having him here, seeing him every day, trying to improve our team, trying to improve everything, especially Thursday here at the camp, it was a lot of fun and good.

SN: Did you have any conversations with him in the off-season?

Barkov: Yeah, just ‘work hard.’ And just by having him everybody respects him a lot, and he’s not gonna leave, even like one or two per cent in his work ethic. Everybody’s going to give 100 per cent on ice and off-ice.

SN: The 31 Thoughts podcast spoke to your linemate Jonathan Huberdeau in Chicago during NHL media day, and he said when he spoke to Quenneville, he compared you and Huberdeau to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and how they come back after each summer having improved on something. What do you make of that comparison to those two superstars and guys who’ve won the Stanley Cup?

Barkov: Yeah, to be honest, I can’t really make any comparison to Toews or Kane. They have won three Stanley Cups, they are among the top hundred players ever to play the game and you can’t really compare to them. The respect for them they have earned everything. They deserve everything they’ve earned in hockey. They definitely will be Hall of Fame players at some point, but of course, me and Hubie and all the other guys we’re trying to get there.

We know we have a good chance to do it and he’s a winger, I’m a centreman. Toews is centreman, (Kane is a) winger. There are a lot of similar things, but now we just need to go out there and win games, and have a lot of success and we’ll see what happens. But right now you can’t really compare (us) to those guys. They have won three Stanley Cups and, obviously, the whole world knows about them and how really good players they are. But of course, one day you want to be there and you want to be compared to those guys, so it’s gonna be awesome.

SN: It’s been three seasons since you’ve been in the playoffs, the Panthers failed to qualify for the post-season for the sixth time in seven seasons and you haven’t advanced or won a series since ’96. What do you think has hampered this club? You’ve got so much young talent … how do you get over that hump?

Barkov: First thing is main goal is to make the playoffs. Anything can happen in the playoffs, but right now we need to, right from the start, we need to play our own game and just concentrate on the next game, and the next shift. And I don’t think too much about the future. Of course, the playoffs they’re going to be in April, and we’ll think about them then. But right now we need to focus on the regular season and trying to make the playoffs, and trying to get there each day at the rink — at the games. Whatever you can do, you need to get there.

SN: Personally, you’re coming off the best season of your career. You had 96 points, you broke the Panthers’ record set by Pavel Bure, you won the Lady Byng Trophy and you again had some votes for the Selke. What are your personal goals for the season?

Barkov: I want to win a Stanley Cup — that’s it. Of course, they’re great accomplishments, the Lady Byng and even getting nominated for the Selke, but if the team has success and the team wins games and makes playoffs … it will come. But the main goal is to win a Stanley Cup with the Florida Panthers. And I’m really, really excited to work here and to try my best to help the team to win games. And my game is all about the team’s game, trying to help the team in every category possible.

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