August 20 2011 07:29PM
The Edmonton Oilers rolled the dice on a reclamation project with Jason Smith back in 1999 and came up winners. Is there a chance Cam Barker could provide the Oilers the same kind of payoff?
While Edmonton GM Steven Tambellini, who grabbed Barker off the scrap heap July 1 after he had his contract bought out by the Minnesota Wild, and fans won't have an answer right away, the circumstances of Barker's arrival are strikingly similar to Smith's a dozen years earlier.
That doesn't for a second mean that Barker and Smith stack up as comparable players in substance or style, but it struck me as I was doing research on Barker in preparation before an interview with him on Nation Radio how much he has in common with Smith.
Suffice to say, Tambellini and fans would be thrilled if Barker has the same tenure here as Smith, who ended up playing 542 regular season games with the Oilers, plus 45 more in the playoffs, and captaining the team before being dealt to Philadelphia in July 2007.
Different time? Sure. Different players? Yes. But anybody who suggests Barker is nothing more than a failed first-rounder and a longshot who is unlikely to amount to much, might be forgetting that Smith arrived here tagged much the same way.
-- Both Smith and Barker were drafted in the first round out of the WHL. Smith was selected 18th overall from the Regina Pats in 1992.
Barker has even better pedigree. He was taken third overall, behind only Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, in 2004 from the Medicine Hat Tigers by the Chicago Blackhawks.
-- Significant injuries have played a part in both their careers. Smith's time with New Jersey got sidetracked in November of 1994 when a knee injury suffered in practice limited him to two games in 1994-95.
After being dealt to Minnesota by Chicago, Barker never did find his stride with the Wild and played just 52 games in 2010-11 after, among other things, hurting his back against the Oilers in a game Feb. 22.
-- Both came cheap. Dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs by the Devils during the 1996-97 season, Smith didn't fit into coach Pat Quinn's plans and Edmonton GM Glen Sather got him for a fourth-round pick in 1999 and a second-rounder in 2000. Pretty cheap for a future captain.
Deemed expendable in the Windy City, Barker struggled so mightily in Minnesota the Wild bought him out and the Oilers inked him to a one-year deal for $2,25 million.
-- Both arrived in Edmonton at the age of 25 as young veterans entering what should be the physical prime of their NHL careers after stints with two previous teams.
Smith had played in 326 regular season games with New Jersey and Toronto. Barker checks in for camp with the Oilers with 271 games in the books with Chicago and Minnesota.
NOW OR NEVER?
Smith was seen by many as nothing more than a depth defenseman, a guy who could play third-pairing minutes and provide a physical element. He wasn't expected to add any offence. He didn't.
But Smith became more than that in terms of impact on the team, carving out a niche with a level of punishing play few expected, playing through injuries with the pain threshold of a cadaver and by providing quiet but unquestionable leadership in the dressing room.
Barker? He hasn't proven he can consistently play anything more than third-pairing minutes at even strength. But he does possess the tool Smith didn't -- the potential to produce offence and, the Oilers hope, to be a secondary option to Ryan Whitney on the power play. Barker had 40 points in just 68 games with Chicago in 2008-09.
Of course, Barker has produced next-to-nothing over the last two seasons with Chicago and Minnesota -- just 6-20-26 in 122 games. Can Barker regain his confidence and contribute offensively? Fair question. Will Barker make a career-defining stand here in Edmonton the way Smith did?
I don't know the answer to that last question, but with a one-year contract at a palatable salary, Barker looks to me to be a gamble worth taking. What's the worst possible outcome? He gets cut loose after one year. Best-case? Hmm.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.