TAMPA - When the NHL Central Scouting bureau released its final rankings for the 2013 draft, the top European-based skater received little fanfare, overshadowed by the North Americans. But a strong argument could be made for Aleksander Barkov to go first overall. If he were eligible for next year's draft - Barkov is two weeks shy of being ineligible this year and won't turn 18 until Sept. 2 - perhaps he would be the top pick. That's because not many 17-year-old players accomplish what Barkov did this season in the Finnish Elite League. In fact, no other 17-year-old player accomplished what the 6-foot-3, 210-pound center did while playing for Tappara. Barkov scored 21 goals and 47 points in 53 games, a league record for a player Barkov's age.
Add in what many scouts consider a savvy defensive game and Barkov plays an all-around game at a very young age. That makes him a possible target for the Lightning, who have the No. 3 overall pick in Sunday's NHL entry draft. "He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time," NHL European director of scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "He's a very good stick-handler with great vision. He's one of the better two-way players in this class and has shown more consistency than any other European over a full season." Barkov's father is Russian, but he played in Finland because that's where the family settled. A late-season shoulder separation ended the year early for Barkov, but it's not expected to damage his draft status. In just the past week, his name has even crept into the conversation about the first overall pick as the Colorado Avalanche stated their intention to take a forward with the top pick - either Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin or Barkov. Whether that is a draft smoke screen by Colorado's Joe Sakic, choosing Barkov with one of the top three picks is not exactly a stretch as Barkov has stood out playing against older competition. "He's a combination goal scorer and playmaker and has played the past two years in the Finnish men's league," Lightning director of scouting Al Murray said. "The one thing that is really interesting about this kid is we have never, ever seen him play in his own age group at any of the (international) tournaments." That's because Barkov has always played up in age with the Finnish national team. For example, this past fall, when the U-18 Ivan Hlincka tournament was played, Barkov was with the U-20 team at a World Junior four-team camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. It hasn't mattered, though. In fact, it has only heightened scouts' opinions of Barkov's potential to be a top-flight NHL player, possibly as soon as next season. "He's big. He's mobile. He's a very good skater," Murray said. "He's got good puck-handling ability. He's a good defensive player, perhaps similar in style to Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau. ... And when you watch him in big games like the World Juniors ... he was a very good player at that tournament." Whichever team selects Barkov on Sunday will get a prospect who already plays beyond his years and likely will be able to play in the NHL for years. "Barkov is one of the greatest NHL entry draft prospects to ever come out of Finland," according to Cory Pronman at Hockey Prospectus. "He is a tremendously advanced player, with elite hockey sense. He has an incredible amount of patience, vision and awareness. He can slow the game down and dictate the tempo, as well as be the focal point on the power play. He also has a high level of defensive skill, showing ability at a very young age to be a quality defensive center." [email protected] (813) 259-7835 Twitter: @erlendssontbo