For years, Florida Panthers center Sasha Barkov was the runaway winner for the ‘most underrated player in the NHL’ award.
Those days appear to be over.
While Barkov may not be the poster boy for the National Hockey League, the Florida captain has become synonymous with his team’s success.
As the Panthers open their first-round playoff series against the Lightning on Sunday night, Barkov will be in the spotlight.
Barkov finished his best season — yes, even better than two years ago when he racked up a franchise-record 96 points — of his career in leading Florida to a 37-14-5 record and second place in the Central Division.
“To have a superstar like that,” Keith Yandle said, “a guy who can drive the bus for our team is really amazing.”
With 26 goals and 58 points, Barkov is considered the favorite to win the Selke Award which goes to “the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.”
Few forwards in the league do as much on both ends of the ice as Barkov.
“He’s had a tremendous year,” Joel Quenneville said. “I think Barky represents being a 200-foot player more than anybody in the game. His speed at both sides, both ways, he’s exemplified that consistency as well. He’s had a special year in a lot of ways.”
Barkov could also be one of finalists for the Hart Trophy which is awarded to the league MVP and will be going to, perhaps unanimously, to Edmonton’s Connor McDavid.
Just being a finalist for league MVP shows how far Barkov’s star has risen.
And with it, the Panthers as well.
Since coming back from injury on April 3, Barkov has scored 13 goals with 21 points in 19 games including three of his team-leading six game-winning goals.
“When he’s on top of his game like this, I think he’s unstoppable,’’ teammate MacKenzie Weegar said.
“I can’t say enough good things about him. I truly think he’s the best player in the world.”
Sergei Bobrovsky said something similar about Barkov last month.
While Barkov is not one for individual accolades, he credits his team’s success to that of his own.
If the Panthers were languishing in sixth place and out of the playoffs, his name likely wouldn’t be mentioned for such postseason honors.
Yet here they are: Barkov and the Panthers, tied together in a bow. This year, it has all been positive.
“It means I’m probably doing something right,’’ Barkov told Florida Hockey Now on Saturday afternoon.
“When the team is having success, that’s where all the recognition comes from. When the team starts to win games, everybody’s paying attention to us.
“They see our team, who is playing well. People are paying attention to our team and our players. It has been a lot of fun this season. And the most fun we can have starts now with the playoffs.
“Everyone in our locker room is about our team’s success. We want to win together.”