Unless you’ve been under a large rock without a high definition television since Sunday, you’ve likely heard the Blackhawk trade rumors de jour, this time involving a number six-type defenseman. One rumor in particular, involving Pittsburgh defenseman Jay McKee, apparently took off after McKee was scratched before Monday night’s game against Buffalo. Other names thrown around include Sean O’Donnell and Garrett Exelby. (Bigger names have been mentioned more recently, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.)
Of course, Stan Bowman will have to make sure the acquired player is better – or a better fit, I suppose – than Jordan Hendry and that the cap hit is nominal. You don’t have to be an NHL insider to figure that out.
It’s been assumed by many “in the know” that any deal the Hawks make before the early March trade deadline will be for a depth defenseman rather than for a big name. Jay McKee certainly fits the bill, and I’d have no real qualms with such an acquisition so long as the price is right. So, let the bidding begin with a third round draft pick, and wake me up when it’s done.
The story that may be hidden beneath the layers here, though, is the season Cam Barker is having. Simply put: if Barker had continued to develop this season as he did during the second half of last regular season, the Hawks’ perceived “need” for a depth defenseman would be poppycock.
His inability this season to stand out for positive contributions in any zone, however, has pinned Barker in NHL Neverland; not only has he become expendable and perhaps duplicative, but downright injurious at times. Indeed, his astonishing lack of development has quietly become one of the few lowlights in an otherwise wonderful campaign.
During the summer, we had the following to say about what could make Barker’s season a success or disappointment. Read carefully, and stay seated please.
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.
Oh, boy. Where to begin?
As I said in the offseason post, “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.” Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the current season, where Barker’s signature confidence with the puck has been missing since Day 1, and his time on the power play has suffered proportionately, as he’s mostly been a second unit contributor, if at all.
Most troubling, there are times this season where Barker seems content to blend in rather than step forward, often settling for partner-to-partner passes during breakouts and zone entries. That’s just not the Cam Barker we saw at times last season.
As for the development of his defensive and physical games, I’ll give him a pass – maybe an “incomplete” is more appropriate – on both. Playing against mostly third and fourth lines, Barker’s defensive game hasn’t necessarily had to develop, and no one wants him to go toe-to-toe physically with many depth forwards.
But, therein is the rub: with his confidence obviously lacking, Coach Joel Quenneville has been reluctant to play him during crunch time. It’s hardly the situation a 23-year old, developing defenseman should be subject to.
Finally, as we feared during the offseason, Cam’s been asked to play third pairing even strength minutes. What’s more, Barker is averaging about 13 minutes of ice per game, less than the other five defensive regulars and every forward not typically on the fourth line. That’s no good-ah.
A couple points underscore Barker’s fall from grace: first, in defense of Barker, it’s been clear since he signed on the dotted line during the summer that (i) there wasn’t enough money to satisfy all the signed players in future years and (ii) he would likely be one of the players shipped out because of it.
It’s not a huge jump to assume then that Barker’s been squeezing his stick all season, feeling as though he’s both (i) playing for a team that doesn’t necessarily want or need him and (ii) trying out for another in the process. That’s probably not a great combination for a young-ish d-man; nor is it necessarily his fault. It certainly seems like he was set up to fail in many ways this year.
Next, given the above, it’s also not a stretch to assume that Quenneville has been “phasing out” Barker, slowly reducing his penalty minutes and looking to others – like Ham Sandwich, who’s a restricted free agent following this season, but figures to be back – to fill in the “big time” minutes. Hell, Q has gone to Dustin Byfuglien on Barker’s familiar spot atop the first unit power play, and Ham Sandwich has gobbled up the crunch time minutes taken last season by Matt Walker.
So, while the Hawks are sure to at least make one small tweak to the ol’ rooster in the next month, remember what a boost a fully functioning Cam Barker could bring come spring time.
Not that I would count on it.
UPDATE: I have something of a policy not to read other Hawk blogs before I write; especially on game days when I don’t want my thoughts to be tainted – for lack of a better term – by others’ blogs.
Well, this afternoon, during my usual afternoon jaunt through the Hawk blogosphere, I stumbled upon Mike Kiley’s take on Cam Barker’s season, one that seems similar to my rant posted this morning. Of course, this was the first I had seen of Kiley’s Barker column, which he apparently posted yesterday, and I in no way attempted to copy or piggy-back his work. Judging from the lack of “Hey, you took Kiley’s column” comments and emails, I assume you all understand the coincidence.
I suppose, in the end, it’s just more evidence that Barker’s having a tough year.