One of the Oilers’ moves that has gotten some favourable attention (Jason Gregor’s take is here; I’m not in total agreement but he makes a good argument) is their signing of defenseman Cam Barker, lately of the Minnesota Wild and previously a third overall draft selection of the Chicago Blackhawks.
My intent is not to argue or agree with the signing here. Instead, I want to explain why I think it’s a bad idea to start Barker off in the top-four on the blue line.
The biggest reason I think Barker needs to be regarded as a bottom-pairing guy is that he’s never been used in the top-four – even when he scored 40 points for Chicago, they used him on the bottom pairing for the vast majority of the year. At that point, he hadn’t developed into a complete defenseman – he was a bottom-pairing guy at even-strength and a power play ace.
It’s also interesting to see where his offense comes from. We’ll stick to that 40-point year, since that was the one everyone references as his finest season. He scored 29 points on the power play, which led the team – five points more than Brian Campbell and well ahead of everybody else. At even-strength, though, he managed just 10 points – sixth on the team and just two ahead of Aaron Johnson, who played roughly half as many games.
In talking to other fans of the team, I’ve found that a lot of them look at Barker as he was presented on draft day – as a big, offensive defenseman who can get involved physically and play in his own end; the complete package, in other words. The thing is that Barker’s almost 300 games into his NHL career, and while he’s certainly still young enough to improve he hasn’t shown that yet.
At his best, Barker has been a good third-pairing guy and an elite power play option. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to score consistently with the man advantage, something that would make teams overlook his problems and keep him in the line-up. There’s hope he can still put that together; he’s had success in the NHL before and all down the line there have been flashes that he’s a special player on the power play. He’s never been a guy that can handle an all-purpose role at even-strength at any stage in his career so far. Again, there’s hope that he can be better, that he can be an above-average third-pairing guy, but given that he was brutal in that role last year for the Wild it would be a mistake to slot him into the top-four in Edmonton and hope he can handle the pressure.
This is a guy rebuilding his career. He should get heavy power play minutes; that’s his skillset, and if he’s going to come through for the Oilers that’s one place where he can make them look really smart for taking a chance on him. At even-strength, though, it’s far better to start him off slow and let him rebuild his confidence and find his defensive game than to throw him in the deep end and hope that he survives. Let’s let him try and rediscover the success he had in Chicago before we start asking for the team to make him do more.