The feeling was an odd one, even if slightly artificial for Aleksander Barkov. This past weekend at the NHL All-Star Game, the Florida Panthers' first-time All-Star looked around the room and ... felt old?
Barkov is just 22 years old, but was the oldest player on his line during Sunday's 3-on-3 four-team, tournament. Buffalo's Jack Eichel is 21. Toronto's Auston Matthews is 20. The trio were part of a larger movement in Tampa that highlighted the league's shift toward younger, more skilled players.
"I feel like I'm almost the oldest one here," Barkov said. "It's nice. The league is going a good way and a lot of young guys in this league."
Barkov was one of 15 first-time All-Stars this weekend, a mix of veterans finally breaking through (like the New York Islanders' Josh Bailey or the New jersey's Brian Boyle) and youngsters climbing the ladder quickly (like Vancouver's Brock Boeser, who won the Accuracy Shooting event on Saturday before taking home MVP honors on Sunday).
Of the 48 players named All-Stars, including the players who did not play due to injury, seven were younger than Barkov. That doesn't count Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon, who was picked one spot ahead of Barkov in the 2013 draft and is just one day older than Barkov.
"This is my 10th year, I'll be 28 in the next couple weeks and I feel like an old guy," Tampa Bay forward Steven Stamkos said. "It's pretty amazing to see how young the league has become but even more amazing to see how good these kids are coming up."
Of the league's top-50 scorers at the All-Star break, only 11 were at least 30 years old. In the same group, 13 players are 23 or younger.
For the second consecutive season, the winner of the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league's MVP is poised to be younger than 25. Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov (24) leads the league with 63 points. MacKinnon (22) is right behind him with 60 points.
Should either of them win the Hart Trophy, it would be the first time in nine seasons that consecutive winners were younger than 25 years old after 20-year-old Connor McDavid won the award last season.
"Honestly, if you told me before the season I'd be in the MVP race, I wouldn't believe you," MacKinnon said. "I'd think you're an idiot."