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Still Underrated? NHL Network has Sasha Barkov No. 9 Center

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Florida Panthers captain Sasha Barkov, left and Matthew Tkachuk hold up the Prince of Wales trophy after the Panthers won Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals against the Carolina Hurricanes on May 24 in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Year after year, it is clear why Florida Panthers captain Sasha Barkov is still considered one of the most underrated players in the NHL by his peers.

Months after anchoring the Panthers to their second Stanley Cup Final berth in franchise history with his two-way prowess, Barkov was ranked as the ninth-best center in the league by NHL Network.

There is a lot of talent in the league — Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, Leon Draisaitl and Sidney Crosby are locks for the Top 5 — but Barkov has a case at being the best player outside of that group.

Despite a down year in 2022-23 plagued with injuries and illness, Barkov has the sixth-most points by a center since 2016-17, trailing only McDavid, Draisaitl, MacKinnon, Matthews and Crosby.

While it is an imperfect way to judge the quality of talent in the league given the influx of young talent like 22-year-old Jack Hughes (ranked sixth) and 24-year-old Elias Pettersson (ranked 10th), Barkov being a mere 30 points behind the pack of top-tier elite talent in a span that pre-dates his breakout 2017-18 season says a lot.

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And what his 192 goals and 512 points in that 473-game span do not show is his elite defensive ability.

With six-time Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron hanging up his skates this offseason, Barkov is now arguably the best two-way forward in the entire league.

The 27-year-old has found himself in the Top 10 in Selke voting in seven of the last eight seasons, winning it in 2021 and finishing eighth last season despite seeing a slight drop off in production.

With his big 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame, Barkov has made a name for himself coming up with important — and smart — plays in the defensive zone, staying out of the penalty box to the tune of just 66 penalty minutes in the last five seasons.

He made it to the end of January before he took his first penalty of 2022-23, finishing the year with eight.

When a player is as involved in the defensive zone as Barkov, using his stick to poke the puck away and break plays up often, those numbers are impressive.

And they often get overlooked when Barkov’s scoring numbers (five goals and 16 points in 21 games) looked rather disappointing on paper.

But what those numbers did not show was that he had to shoulder a lot of the responsibility defensively with Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour both playing through severe injuries during the playoffs — and he did a great job of it.

Those efforts were overlooked as Jack Eichel put up six goals and 26 points in the playoffs en route to a Stanley Cup Final victory over Barkov’s Panthers.

While Eichel’s run with the Vegas Golden Knights was impressive, netting him the second-most Conn Smythe Trophy votes behind Jonathan Marchessault, his regular season resume does not say enough to surpass the likes of Barkov.

Since Eichel entered the league as the second overall pick in 2015-16, Barkov has 39 more goals and 125 more points in 63 more games played.

Even when taking those numbers with a grain of salt given they include Eichel’s rookie season and his injury history with the Buffalo Sabres, the recent regular season numbers and Barkov’s superior defensive ability are enough to put the Florida captain over the edge.

Despite having a disappointing season to his standards, Barkov had 78 points in 68 games to Eichel’s 66 in 67 games.

No disrespect to Eichel, who still deserves a place in the Top 10 debate, but Barkov is better.

While Hughes and Brayden Point each earned their respective spots at six and seven on the list following point totals of 99 and 95 respectively, the duo combined for just one 82-plus point season prior to 2022-23.

Of course, Hughes is just entering his fifth NHL season with more high-production years on the way while Point played in his first season of over 66 games since scoring 92 points in 2018-19 — not to mention the Tampa Bay Lightning star’s impressive 82 playoff points in 82 games across three runs to the Stanley Cup Final and two Cup wins.

Each one of those three players has an argument to be one of the Top 5 centers in the league once 36-year-old Crosby finally takes a dip in production, but the point is, Barkov deserves a place in the discussion.

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