Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition

Getting points — plus a lot more

What Panthers love about record-setting team captain Barkov

- By David Wilson

The beauty of Aleksander Barkov’s record-setting assist Monday is it wasn’t immediatel­y obvious he even had one when the Florida Panthers started celebratin­g their second-period goal against the Detroit Red Wings.

Gustav Forsling delivered the blast for the goal and Sam Reinhart set him up with the primary assist, but Barkov was perhaps the biggest reason it all happened and he got a secondary assist for his work, quietly setting the franchise’s all-time points record in the process.

The shift was already close to a minute old by the time a shot went wide and Barkov barreled through a Red Wing to scoop up another loose puck along the boards. He then changed directions on a dime — faster and with more ease than a 6-foot-3, 215-pound center has any right to — and slid a pass to Reinhart behind the net. The 27-yearold Finn then drifted toward the net and brought the defense with him, opening a passing lane for Reinhart to find Forsling to his slap-shot goal.

“There aren’t a lot of facets to his game,” coach Paul Maurice said Friday, “where he’s not elite.”

The goal wound up being the game-winner and the Panthers gave Barkov the silent treatment when he walked into the locker room at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena after he recorded his 614th point, all with Florida.

After a few seconds, his teammates jumped to their feet, hooted and cheered, and mobbed their captain to celebrate his milestone.

“He’s the face of the franchise for a reason,” defenseman Radko Gudas said Friday.

“He’s the driver of this team,” center Sam Bennett said Friday.

“He’s the best player this franchise has ever had,” forward Carter Verhaeghe said Monday.

“I came here as a young guy, 17 years old. I got here and I didn’t

really speak English, and I didn’t know anything about America or Florida,” Barkov told Bally Sports Florida on Monday. “I’ve been really fortunate to call myself a Florida Panther for the last 10 years and hopefully many more.”

After Florida traded Jonathan Huberdeau to the Flames in the offseason, it just became a matter of when Barkov would the break the star left wing’s all-time points record. There’s no one better suited to own it.

The Panthers took Barkov with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft and immediatel­y slotted him into their lineup as an 18-year-old. He had 119 points before his 21st birthday, has had at least 50 points in every season since his second year in the league and became the team’s captain in 2018, presiding over the most successful stretch in franchise history.

He already held the franchise goals record with 238 and his 376 assists are the second most in team history, but his importance to Florida is about much more than just those scoring number. It’s what everyone who spends enough time around the All-Star forward comes to understand.

“I got the same line from everybody: This guy’s a way better player than you know because you have to watch him every day,” Maurice said, recalling what people around the organizati­on told him about Barkov when he took over as coach last year.

Some of his accolades speak for themselves: He won the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmans­hip in 2019 and the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in the NHL in 2021.

The team’s track record does, too: The Panthers have already made the Stanley Cup playoffs four times in Barkov’s 10 seasons after they made it there only four times in the 20 years he got to South Florida.

There’s also the way Maurice is able to use him: Barkov has played with seven different wingers this year and he recorded his record-setting point just hours after Maurice changed up his line once again.

“He says, I don’t care who I play with. We’ve got good players. I’ll play with anybody,” Maurice said. “The brilliance of his captaincy is the way he makes everyone feel equal to him.”

Florida is now poised to make another trip to the Cup playoffs this year too. The Panthers entered Tuesday in sole possession of the second wild card and keep control of their own destiny no matter what happens against the Philadelph­ia Flyers at Wells Fargo Arena in Pennsylvan­ia.

Although this season has not gone the way Florida expected after it won the Presidents’ Trophy last year, the Panthers’ issues have also shed light on just how important Barkov is.

Florida has lost 10 of 14 without Barkov in the lineup this year and its .661 points percentage when he plays would rank fourth in the Eastern Conference.

It’s why even All-Star right wing Matthew Tkachuk, who has somewhat overshadow­ed Barkov this year as a legitimate Hart Trophy contender, never hesitates to call him the best player on the team and why general manager Bill Zito signed him to an eight-year, $80 million extension in 2021 to keep him with the Panthers until 2030.

“It happened to him for a reason,” Gudas said. “He is really the best player on the ice every time he steps on.”

 ?? CARLOS OSORIO/AP ?? Panthers center Aleksander Barkov plays during the first period on Monday in Detroit. In the game he recorded his 614th point for a franchise record.
CARLOS OSORIO/AP Panthers center Aleksander Barkov plays during the first period on Monday in Detroit. In the game he recorded his 614th point for a franchise record.

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