2013 Draft Eligibles: Is Aleksander Barkov the Finnish Eric Lindros?

If the 2013 draft did not headline a trio of top-tier prospects, Aleksander Barkov would be getting a lot more attention. Unfortunately, with the consensus number one overall pick in Portland Winterhawk Seth Jones, and the next two picks coming from the Halifax Mooseheads (Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon) little attention is being focused on European talent.

My good friend Tom Zulewski earlier profiled Finnish defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, who is the top-rated defenseman among European skaters. Ristolainen’s countryman Aleksander Barkov is the number one draft-eligible European skater on NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking that was released Wednesday. Despite conflicting rankings that rank Russian winger Valeri Nichushkin as the top Euro skater, Barkov holds the official title, a position he also held when the midterm rankings were released in January.

Image courtesy of eliteprospects.com

The 6-foot-3, 209-pound center is a gifted athlete with natural ability in his genetics. His father, Alexander Barkov, was born in Russia and played professional hockey for the Soviets from 1982-1994. After a year in Italy, the elder Barkov moved to Finland and finished his career with Tappara. After retiring he began his coaching career with Tappara, spanning from 2004-10. In 2012 he took a head-coaching gig in the KHL and is coaching in the league presently. “Sasha” Barkov never played under his father despite growing up playing for the same Finnish team.

Top prospect Seth Jones isn’t the only one who grew up in an athletic family with a basketball influence. Olga Barkov, Sasha’s mother, played on the Russian national basketball team. The genetic combination of Sasha’s parents have scientists all over Finland and Russia wondering what kind of athletic hockey-playing machine was just created.

At 14, Barkov dazzled Tappara coaches with his domination of U16 talent, which forced them to advance him within the organization quicker than expected. In the 2010-11 season Sasha, who was 15 at the start of the season, stood out at the U16 and U18 levels early on, and by the time the season was over he collected 25 games of experience with the U20 team. Just one rung away from the Finnish Elite League Barkov has already displayed endless potential and true star abilities.

Image courtesy of tvasports.ca

Breaking into the SM-liiga as a baby-faced 16-year-old, Barkov held his own totaling 16 points in 32 games. In his debut on October 1, 2011 Barkov became the youngest player ever in the league to score a point. The Finnish center continued his historic campaign internationally at the World Junior Championships. After competing for Finland’s U18 team, Barkov became one of the youngest players ever selected for the U20 WJC. At 16 years and four months, he became the youngest Finnish player to score a goal at the U20 Tournament. Barkov’s shot is very good. Although its velocity is still developing, he can score in a number of different ways, showing wizardly talents from the goal line.

This season, at just 17, Barkov finished second on Tappara in scoring with 48 points in 53 games played. His totals were good for ninth in the Finnish Elite League. Impressively, the next-youngest scorer leader was seven years older than Sasha. He is a very calm skater who uses his intelligence on the ice to read and react in all three zones. He is an excellent playmaker who utilizes his large frame to control the puck and show off his outstanding puck moving and passing abilities. His on ice IQ is already better than some NHL players with multiple years of professional experience.

The Finnish prospect is a complete forward that plays a 200-foot game. Barkov has a strong game understanding, knowing the importance of back checking, then flashing the skill to turn it up ice and create offense. He is also very skilled in the faceoff circles. In one early-round game during the U20 WJC, Barkov went 25-of-30 in the dots.

As a teenager Barkov shows tremendous maturity playing with a quiet confidence regardless of his opponent’s age. With just eight total penalty minutes in 53 games in the SM-liiga, the 17-year-old has displayed wisdom beyond his years showing tremendous restraint. Barkov is rewarded with ice time and the chance to hone his skills even strength, on the powerplay and on the penalty kill.

Some scouts challenge Barkov’s skating ability and speed. But that is a result of his tremendous positioning skills. His smarts allow him to decipher the play and creatively weave throughout the ice eyeing the puck movement. By doing this he appears to be gliding and not skating hard, which is a gross underestimation of his abilities. Barkov has very good skating skills and can turn on the jets if he needs to burn a defender from the outside.

Former Finnish star Jari Kurri compared Barkov to Minnesota Wild captain Mikko Koivu. Koivu was the sixth overall pick in the 2001 draft by the Wild, and has been a one-team player throughout his successful career. Barkov has the same traits to be a franchise-type player.

Courtesy of the NHL lockout this season the two had a chance to face off in a SM-liiga game in late November. The youngster got the best of the grizzled vet that night, scoring two regulation goals to Koivu’s one in a 5-4 shootout victory versus TPS Turku. TSN’s Craig Button actually said Barkov was the best player on the ice that night, not just among young players and prospects. Button’s claims are lofty, but certainly merited given the accomplishments this budding superstar has accumulated over his short career. Here is a highlighted version of the matchup between Barkov and Koivu.

Despite the comparison to a great Finnish player by a legendary Finnish skater, Barkov told NHL.com that his idol growing up was longtime Flyer Eric Lindros. The former number one overall pick in the 1991 NHL draft was a staple for years as the captain and member of the Legion of Doom.

No Finnish-born player has ever been selected number one overall in the NHL Draft. If Barkov were born two weeks later, he would have been available for the 2014 NHL Draft, and would’ve been the consensus number one pick. Because of the elite CHL talent entering this draft, the European skater’s stock is dropping to no fault of his own. Barkov has the array of abilities and sky-high ceiling to be a top pick.

Flyers fans just imagine if Aleksander Barkov develops into the next Eric Lindros. If Philadelphia has the chance to draft Barkov it would be a no-brainer to make the choice, and they wouldn’t have to trade Peter Forsberg for him.