The Barkov Dilemma

The Florida Panthers are preparing to enter the 2021-22 season, with arguably their best roster in franchise history. Over the past season, Bill Zito dramatically reformed the Florida Panthers roster, as his combination with legendary head coach Joel Quenneville have led to several players on the Panthers roster breaking out into solid performers. Despite a disappointing six-game exit to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Panthers still impressed, as Jonathan Huberdeau put on a scoring clinic and rookie goaltending sensation Spencer Knight proved he was already ready for big game action. Despite how talented the Panthers roster is, the roster is currently a house of cards on a dangerously precarious table. That dangerously precarious table is the contract situation of Captain Aleksander Barkov.

Aleksander Barkov is arguably the best player in franchise history (the only one coming close is his best friend Jonathan Huberdeau). Barkov and Huberdeau make up the best one-two punch in Panthers history, and Barkov’s star play was a crucial factor in the Panthers breakout season, capturing the Selke Trophy, while putting up a team-leading 26 goals in 50 games. That is a 43 goal pace over a full-season. Barkov is one of the most skilled players in the league, a regular feature on highlight reels, with his amazing dekes and sneakily wicked shot. Barkov is entering the final year of a 6 year deal paying him $5.9 million a year. Barkov’s performance has proven that he is worth a significant investment.

Barkov is currently eligible to be signed to an extension. The Panthers want to make their captain a Panther-for-life, which would entail signing him to max term of 8 years, until he is 34 years old. Bill Zito has built his team around his captain, and by all reports has built up a great relationship with him. If Barkov is interested in remaining a Panther, which by all accounts, he is, it is in his best interest and the team’s best interest to sign him to an extension as soon as possible. Barkov will likely receive a eight-figure deal annually, likely exceeding Sergei Bobrovsky as the highest paid Panther in franchise history.

Many reports have reported that an extension with Barkov has been extremely close all summer. A few days ago, George Richards of Florida Hockey Now reported that Barkov and the Panthers are close to, or have already agreed to a new contract. Richards report suggested that a Barkov extension would be announced as soon as Barkov arrives for training camp, which many players are expected to report within the next week or so.

One big problem. The most recent Barkov update came from Local 10 reporter David Dwork last night. Dwork and Richards are easily the two most significant Panthers beat writers not working for the team, and Dwork’s report directly contradicted that of Richards. According to Dwork, the newly-turned 26 year old (he turns 26 on the day I write this) is apparently not close to an extension with the team. Dwork maintains that although extension talks have begun, his source has indicated that nothing significant has happened.

This is alarming news. The season is only 42 days away, and the Panthers need to maintain complete focus on the season. That focus would be nearly impossible without Barkov locked up.

Both Dwork and Richards believe that significant progress will be made once Barkov returns from Finland. Barkov is celebrating his 26th birthday in Finland today, and should make the transatlantic flight within the coming days. Barkov and his agents are expected to meet with Zito before training camp.

The Panthers have a ton of advantages that would entice free agents to sign with them. The beaches, great weather and a contending team on the rise, as well as a media-friendly environment, where players don’t need to worry about constantly being scrutinized for every little thing they do, and most importantly-no state income tax, provide the Panthers and their rival Lightning some of the best advantages on the free agent market. Barkov’s agents know that the buck stops with him when it comes to the Panthers becoming and maintaining a status of a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and are likely eager to squeeze every red cent they can out of Vinnie Viola. That’s not to say Barkov doesn’t deserve it, he deserves every single cent he signs for, something that Viola and Zito also know.

Zito has run a tight ship ever since taking over. After the Patric Hornqvist trade nearly imploded, and a rejected-deal that would’ve made Nate Schmidt a Florida Panther, Zito has plugged all leaky holes, often making moves with little warning. Examples include the Sam Bennett trade, Anthony Duclair and Gustav Forsling extensions and the Joe Thornton signing. It is possible that Dwork’s sources could be following orders from Zito and not giving anything away, something crucial in the art of negotiations, as you don’t want to tip your hat to the other side, but we have no idea.