Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito sat across from captain Sasha Barkov on the ninth floor of a Fort Lauderdale hotel Friday afternoon and even he admitted he was “gushing.”
The past, present and future of the Panthers was on display at this poolside locale; the Panthers’ sprawling new training complex at the historic War Memorial Auditorium just a block away and in full view of the festivities.
Barkov has evolved from the Panthers’ first-round pick in 2013 to the team captain to the true cornerstone of the franchise.
That is why Friday’s announcement that the Panthers had locked down Barkov to a franchise-record eight-year, $80 million contract was so important.
Perhaps not to folks around the team — although anytime someone as important as Barkov signs for that kind of cake, it’s a big deal — but for those around the hockey world.
Barkov, just hitting his stride at 26, was entering the final year of his contract. Had he wanted, Barkov could have gone anywhere in the league he wanted to go.
And he wanted to stay in Florida, with the Panthers.
“It is an exciting day for the Panthers, the hockey ops group and the organization, the community and our fans,” Zito said. “When I came here a year ago and met with Vinnie and Matt, one of the foremost challenges we were all confronted with was being able to create an environment and culture that Sasha would want to stay with.”
Barkov, who was the second-overall pick in 2013, has seen quite a bit of losing in his years with the Panthers — but he says he can also see what the team can become.
Winning is of the upmost importance to Barkov and he really likes what Zito and the Panthers have built.
And built around him, honestly.
“I want to thank Vinnie Viola for the trust and for believing in me,” Barkov said. “And not just me; the whole organization. He has committed to make the organization better every year and I am really happy with that. I see it happen every summer, every winter.
“We’re getting better as a team, organization. All of hockey is growing in South Florida every day. I see that, too. It’s getting bigger and the excitement around hockey is growin. I am proud to be part of that and honored to stay here for a long time.”