It took the better part of five hockey seasons, but the player drafted immediately behind Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, respectively, finally started to play like it during the 2008-’09 NHL season.
To be fair, Cam Barker, taken third overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, took some grief for his inability to develop at a pace comparable to his notable peers, but Barker is a defenseman, and defensemen typically have a more difficult time adjusting to the brains and pace associated with the NHL game. It didn’t help Barker’s case that he was drafted at perhaps the driest time of a historic Blackhawk drought and, as a result, that he was leaned on heavily by the organizations and its (relatively few, at that time) fans to develop quickly and adequately.
But, after starting the season in the AHL – due either to a silly “hockey decision” or, more probably, a salary crunch – like a house on fire, Barker continued to showcase his offensive upside at the highest level, scoring six goals and gaining 34 assists in 68 games, good for third in points and fourth in goals among his fellow Hawk defensemen. What’s more, as his season continued, Barker began to prove himself worthy in his own zone, and consequently was often asked to log top-four minutes in tight games.
He even showed a physical side, often pitching in with a big hit or dropping the mitts, as he did two times last year. Sure, he’ll likely never have an own-zone game of Chris Pronger, but he’s shown an ability to develop his defensive game. In time – maybe this season – he’ll be leaned on heavily to provide a defensive presence, too, and remember: defensemen don’t usually come into their own until their mid- to late-twenties. He’ll have to better his foot speed and positioning to do it.
But, what sets Barker apart – and what made him worth a contract extension worth nearly $10 million covering the next three seasons – is his presence on the power play. Undoubtedly, Barker’s confidence with the puck and his booming shot from the point help set the Hawks’ power play apart during the ’08-’09 campaign.
Barker’s 2009-’10 season will be a success if…
He takes power play pressure off Brian Campbell. Sure, Campbell was signed for big bucks to quarterback the power play, and for the most part, he did a nice job of doing so. But, $50 million has a tendency to wear players down. If Barker can continue to be the power play force he was most of last season, Campbell may feel a tiny bit of the load lifted from his shoulders, and that’s a good thing.
He continues to develop his defensive and physical games. Being a power play ace is fine, but Barker has all the tools to be a force in his own zone. He took a large step forward last season in those capacities, but there’s plenty – OK, a lot – of room for improvement. Many – me included – thought the Hawks were essentially writing Barker off with the acquisition of Campbell last offseason; Barker proved them wrong. This offseason the Hawks have a perceived need for a large defensive defenseman. Could it be Barker is capable of adding this dimension to his game?
Barker’s 2009-’10 season will be a disappointment if…
He’s asked to play third pairing even strength minutes. While Barker may earn his money on the power play alone, more should be expected of a third overall pick. With Matt Walker gone, Barker should be asked to pick up more late minutes.
Barker sure showed last season why he was worthy of the third overall selection, just behind the superstars mentioned above – and just ahead of Andrew Ladd, of course. And, it’s time he takes another large step forward in becoming the all-around defenseman he should be.