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Hey, ladies and germs…long time since I hollered at you!
I’ve been promising individual profiles of the top 4 or 5 prospects that the Predators could get the opportunity to draft on June 30 in scenic Newark, New Jersey–but as they say, life happens. On May 16, our first child–Henrik “Zetterbaby” Nelson arrived, and I’ve been pretty tied up with him. I’ve tried to reason with him, and explain that there a lot of people depending on me for analysis–but I just can’t seem to make him understand.
Fortunately, things have settled down a bit, and I can now deliver the first part of what I expect to be a four-part series. While my draft primer gives a brief overview of the players I envisioned in the top ten at that point in time (now wildly outdated, by the way), I did want to give a more in-depth report on the specific players the Predators will likely pick if they stay at fourth overall.
Today’s focus is the most likely selection, Tappara’s Aleksander Barkov.
The word “safety” can sometimes carry a bad connotation. When people hear it, they tend to think that there’s an inherent limitation. ”Yes, this player will be good, but he’s a ‘safe’ pick.” Maybe it’s because the lack of risk makes a player seem less exciting, less of a gamble. Perhaps calling a player a “safe” bet to make the NHL while also carrying an elite level of upside seems simply too good to be true.
Whatever the case may be, Aleksander Barkov may be the safest player projected to go in the top ten–but don’t be fooled into thinking that he doesn’t have the potential to be a franchise-level center. When Predators fans see things like “responsible defensively” and “strong two-way player,” there’s a tendency to think “David Legwand” or “Nick Spaling.” While both of these players are useful contributors, they’re not the sort of sexy player that you want to take at fourth overall in a deep draft. When it comes to Barkov, “safety” is an exciting adjective–he’s an almost sure-fire star in the NHL. Unlike prospects like Nathan Mackinnon or Jonathan Drouin, Barkov has already been playing against men in the Finnish Elite League. During the lockout, he was competing and outplaying established NHL talent–all while putting up a season that has some whispering that Barkov may be the best Scandinavian prospect in the last 20 years.
Fortunately, the presence of Barkov’s defensive responsibility in no way takes away from an elite offensive upside. While Barkov isn’t the type of player to dazzle with fancy stickwork or electrifying hands, he possesses that innate characteristic that scouts love–hockey IQ. Maybe the best in the draft, in terms of this attribute, Barkov is the sort of player that knows where everyone on the ice is at all times and is cognizant of what that means relative to him. When he has the puck, he is able to use his large frame (6’3 205, and reportedly still growing) to shield and maintain possession. Think Joe Thornton or Rick Nash, in that regard. Through this ability, he can draw coverage to him and create time and space for those on the ice with him…and with perfect timing, he’ll put the puck on the tape. An exciting ability, when you consider that he could be playing with a sneaky sniper like Filip Forsberg.
Similarly, when Barkov doesn’t have the puck, he has an uncanny instinct of “right place, right time.” As I mentioned earlier, he’s not the sort of player that will undress an entire team with dekes and toe drags…but he doesn’t rely on that sort of gambling. He doesn’t have to…he knows where to be, and has the efficiency to accomplish offensively without the need for an electrifying display of offensive acumen. As a result, he’s the sort of player that is an offensive threat both with and without the puck–Barkov should see roughly equal numbers in the goal-scoring and assist categories.
While Barkov’s offensive game is what we’re all clamoring for, it bears mention that he truly does play a complete, three-zone game. This is an important distinction when you consider that players like Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, Scott Hartnell…and once upon a time, the aforementioned David Legwand–have all spent time in Barry Trotz’s doghouse for a one-dimensional game. Aleksander Barkov is essentially tailor-made for the Nashville Predators. From day one, he could and should see time in the top six at even strength, on the first power play unit, and on the first penalty kill unit. There should be very little learning curve when it comes to the expectations on him for a complete game. This is especially important, given that Barkov is considered a slam-dunk to jump straight into the NHL…perhaps more so than any other prospect in the draft. Again…safety can be an exciting virtue.
In terms of weaknesses, that operative “safety” implies that he doesn’t have many. While some scouts have knocked his skating ability, in my own observation it’s acceleration that he lacks. Once he gets going, his top-end speed is actually pretty solid. Fortunately, skating is one of the easiest weaknesses to address, if the player is committed to improving it.
Why the Predators Should Select Barkov:
For all the reasons above. Barkov WILL play in the NHL. In my opinion, he’s no worse than a good second line center, but has the potential to be a franchise-caliber first liner. The sort of player you build your team around for the next 15 years.
Why the Predators Should NOT Select Barkov
Something unexpected happens in the first three selections and the Predators want to go for a more dynamic offensive talent (more on that in the next edition of Prospect Profile, in which I’ll cover Jonathan Drouin). Barring that, the only thing that could give Nashville pause when it comes to Barkov is a shoulder injury that shut his season down during the SM-Liiga’s playoffs. Reports out of Finland are that Barkov is recovering well and already skating, and should be ready by the time NHL training camps open in September. However, since Barkov couldn’t participate fully in the NHL combine, teams are left a little in the dark in terms of his strength and conditioning attributes.
Anze Kopitar, Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton, Mats Sundin