Cam Barker, Top-4 Defenseman

A number of respected Oilers commentators – including Oilers Nation’s own Jason Strudwick – have taken to calling Cam Barker a top-four defenseman. Is that a fair characterization of that player?

Here’s what Strudwick said last night:

Take a look at the D-man injuries to Whitney and Barker. It put to much pressure of the D-corps. They are both twenty minute guys and you can’t replace that for months. Throw in Gilbert’s injury and that is three of your top four D-men out.

Based on Barker’s ice-time this season, Strudwick has a case. Barker, prior to going down to injury, was averaging 20:03 per game. As it stands, that total is fifth on the team, narrowly behind Corey Potter, but it’s so close to top-four minutes that we’d be splitting hairs to argue the assertion.

So, in the aggregate, over the first dozen games of the season Barker was a top-four defenseman for the Oilers. He certainly didn’t play the role every game, but for the most part he did.

However, if we look back at Barker’s usage before joining the Oilers, things get a little murkier.

2010-11

Cam Barker played for the Minnesota Wild last season. He averaged a hair over 14:00 per game at even-strength in Minnesota, a total which put him well outside the top four and sandwiched him between rookies Clayton Stoner (14:42 per night) and Marco Scandella (14:06) per night. In terms of total ice-time, he ranked sixth overall on the Wild blue-line with 16:24 per game.

The Wild were unhappy with his performance – so much so that after he cleared waivers they bought him out of the final year of his contract, paying one-third of the $3.25 million remaining on the deal up front and taking a cap hit penalty for two seasons to get rid of Barker. Despite the penalty, it was a move that went over well with the fanbase in Minnesota. Barker actually ended up better off financially when the Oilers signed him to a one-year/$2.25 million contract – that deal, combined with the buyout dollars, earned Barker $83,333 more than he would have had the Wild just kept him.

Barker had a truly disastrous season in 2010-11. He was in over his head as the Wild’s sixth defenseman. Nothing he did there indicated he was a top-four quality defender.

His Prior Work

Interestingly, Barker’s ice-time in 2010-11 was actually an increase on a per-game level from what he had done in 2009-10, a season he split between Minnesota and Chicago. In that season, per night he averaged 12:47 at even-strength, 0:33 on the penalty kill, and 2:09 on the power play. Those are bottom-pairing minutes with a dash of power play specialty thrown in.

In 2008-09, Barker’s even-strength ice-time average was 13:41 per game, fifth on the Blackhawks (one spot behind Matt Walker). He spent a little over one minute per game on the penalty-kill, and 3:24 on the power play. 2008-09, by the way, was Barker’s great offensive breakout – he picked up 29 power play points, the vast majority of them second assists.

2006-07 and 2007-08 were both split between NHL and AHL duty. Barker played mostly third-pairing minutes at even-strength, picked up a bit of time on the penalty kill, and got a major role on the power play when he was with the Blackhawks in both seasons.

Conclusion

I really debated writing this at all. Jason Strudwick has played nearly 700 games at hockey’s highest level, and it is impossible not to be cognizant of that when disagreeing with him on something hockey related.

However, the truth is that Cam Barker has never held a top-four role for an extended period of time. He was a sixth defenseman last season, and his head coach carefully kept his even-strength ice-time in the same range as a pair of raw rookies. His entire NHL career up to Edmonton screams “third-pairing guy, with good minutes on the power play and bit work on the penalty kill.”

The Oilers haven’t missed him on special teams. Tom Renney didn’t really use Barker on the penalty kill, and the power play has been better with one of Potter, Gilbert or Petry in Barker’s slot. That leaves his even-strength ice-time – and as we’ve seen, even in his best years, Barker’s been a depth guy in that role. Worse, if one uses scoring chances to judge his first 12 games, he was the Oilers’ least effective defenseman in that span.

The Oilers have had their share of injury problems this year – both in terms of absences (Nugent-Hopkins and Gilbert underlining that right now) but also in terms of decreased effectiveness when a player is in the lineup (Ryan Whitney being the most notable player in that group). It’s both fair and accurate to take them into account when discussing the team’s poor overall performance this season.

But on the list of injuries that have had a major impact on the season, it’s hard for me to put Cam Barker’s name anywhere near the top.

  • Wax Man Riley

    To be fair, Strudwick wrote that he was one of “3 of YOUR top four defensemen” and not “A top four defenseman.” Big difference.

    He had the skills 3 years ago to be a top pairing defender, but he is definitely not that this year, no matter how many minutes he gets.

    • And that’s a fair point. Others have gone further in their comments, though – Mark Spector for example said the following:

      This season, the Oilers are on pace for 266 man games lost to injury. Against New Jersey, they were missing their top two scoring forwards, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (shoulder) and Jordan Eberle (knee), and their best three defencemen: Ryan Whitney, Tom Gilbert and Cam Barker (all ankles).

      It’s an argument that’s being made in some circles.

    • Souby

      You took the words right out of my mouth.

      The Oil took a chance on Barker but the reality is, the experiment just hasn’t worked. He has had one good season of 40pts but otherwise has played like a bottom pairing D-man throughout his career.

      I would rather see the Oil cut him loose and open up a spot on the roster for one of the kids or a veteran UFA in the summer.

      • We’re so thin on actual NHL’er D that my mom’s 12 year-old dog could make a play to be in Edmonton’s “top four D” – and that dog hasn’t spent a stitch of time on ice. As things are right now, I’m fairly certain a dog that had been walked across a pond would be in the running.

  • Oilers21

    Everyone’s saying what I think. Barker’s like Matt Stajan was for Toronto; Stajan was THEIR top-line center for a while, but not a REAL top-line center

  • Sheldon "Oilers Fan for Life!!!"

    I would like to see another70 games at least from him. The improvement I have seen from D-men that I was ready to throw to the dogs tells me that patience with young D-men is a very worth well asset.

  • bazmagoo

    If the Oil could get him for about 1.5 million for one year I think they should do it. As a 6th – 7th depth defenceman I think you could do worse, and his upside potential is still there as he is relatively young still.

    It’d be great to see him for a full healthy season, then make our decision on him. Just my opinion, but the Oilers do certainly have a history of letting solid pro’s loose before they reach their potential.

  • striker777

    Barker should do the right thing for the Oilers and sign 1-yr contract extension at half price. This way, Oilers don’t feel like he’s taking advantage of them AND have a chance to truly evaluate him.

  • vetinari

    I think that Barker’s draft pedigree automatically makes him considered by some as a “top 4 defenceman”, however, the actual numbers don’t lie and are consistent with his performance to date.

    I think everyone hoped that he would turn the corner with the Oilers and rebuild his game, but unfortunately, his injury has prevented him from any meaningful development.

    I think that he was worth the risk of a one year contract and unless he returns from his injury and posts a healthy plus rating over the remaining 30 games or averages at least 20:00 minutes of ice time per game or explodes for .4 points per game over the rest of the season, you can move on at the end of his contract and say, experiment failed.

  • Aitch

    Maybe everyone’s trying to do Tambo a favour and convince other hockey-folk that Barker is an actual NHL d-man. Plus, the deadline’s coming up and Stu’s asked for an extra 6th round pick this June.

  • striker777

    We like you Willis, you write good articles.

    But when Struddy says he a top four… he’s a top four.

    I don’t care if a guy is 4 or 5 on our dman depth chart.

  • striker777

    ~I see the ability to skate as an often overlooked attribute in good hockey players. Helps them catch those pesky varmint forwards. Almost like how being able to run helps out a soccer player in unexpected ways.~

    It can’t be possible that anyone responsible for the Oilers thinks that Barker has played well (now or ever) can it? That could make them the laughing stock of the league.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    Oiler fans have a “Innocent until proven guilty” mind set… even after a guy was proven guilty everywhere else.

    It’s a good thing for Barker he’s missed so many games this season, otherwise he would have been a whipping boy right now. Instead he’s still going off the “he’s new, so he must be good” theory.

  • OilLeak

    Nothing fantastic about Barker’s play or stats but I don’t think it was a coincidence that the Oilers’ hot start ended right around the time Barker got hurt. Whitney was out, Potter got hurt too. Sutton had two major suspensions. Now Tom Gilbert is out.

    20 minutes is tough to replace. And if the majority of those minutes are spent in the defensive zone where you have to chase speedy wingers around the ice, it’s really tough.

    I’m not sure if there was a game where the Oil fielded their top 6 Dmen altogether. We might be getting there soon. I’m interested to see what Cam does when he gets back. He’s been off for a while so he might start slow. But he’s playing for a contract and a chance to stay here so maybe he can raise his game. We’ll see!

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    I think the potential of Barker was too be a top four this year. His ice time may have put him there, but his play was average. Numbers show otherwise. I think hes been passed by Gibby, Smid, Whitney, Petry, and arguebly Peckham and maybe Potter. He may be healthy, but the only guy I may rotate him with in and outta the line-up is Potter.

  • Jason Gregor

    Jonathon,

    Lately, it seems half your articles are about taking one sentence from a person’s article and ripping it apart.

    Strudwick never said he was an NHL top-four D, but that he was in Edmonton. Was this wrong?

    No it wasn’t. Smid, Whitney, Barker and Gilbert were the top four at the start of the year, and with Whitney down he would be top three. How do you not see this?

    No one said Barker is a proven top-four, but he was that on the Oiler’s depth chart. Unless you thought Peckham, Potter or Sutton were ahead of him.

    Disagreeing with people is fine, but twisting words or taking one line and focusing on that is a slippery slope.

  • Great article! I also hope the organization is patient with him. He has the draft pedigree and the potential, but he has not really been able to solidify a particular role with any team he has been with. He had a great season in Chicago when he was the top pairing D on the PP and look at the results. After that its pretty hard to overshadow two of the leagues best D-men in Seabrook and Keith. Minnesota, shafted the entire time, no time to find a niche.

    I say resign him, gradually give him more important minutes now, let him have a great off season of training knowing he has a team and let him show us what he has next year.

    Tambellini will MAYBE get one more D man in the off season, but i doubt it based on previous track recordsd or if he is still unfortunately here.

    Whitney Petry
    Smid Gilbert
    Barker NEW GUY

    We need to solidify the defence that we have. Before the lock out, we had a god awful defence (green staois, cross, smith etc). They got better and found their niche on the team, and suprise, a quick few deadline additions and wow we have arguably the best D in the league. Im not saying, im just saying….. thanks!

  • “Others have gone further in their comments, though – Mark Spector for example said the following:”

    This season, the Oilers are on pace for 266 man games lost to injury. Against New Jersey, they were missing their top two scoring forwards, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (shoulder) and Jordan Eberle (knee), and their best three defencemen: Ryan Whitney, Tom Gilbert and Cam Barker (all ankles).

    “It’s an argument that’s being made in some circles.”

    So, is the issue that Spector said “their three best defensemen” instead of “three of their four best defensemen?”

    On this team, as Strudwick, Gregor and others have pointed out, Barker was a top-four defensemen. On a deep team, Barker is likely a third-pairing guy who gets some power-play time thrown in, so, yes, that speaks to lack of depth on this roster.

    I had no problem with taking a gamble on Barker with a one-year deal when the move was made and I still have no problem with it, even if the ankle injury has ensured it won’t pay off this season. What I had a problem with was Tambellini’s failure to add another experienced defenseman to the mix. That was the mistake, not signing Barker.

    Having seen how diligently Barker has worked to come back from this injury, I’d also have no problem with the Oilers attempting to re-sign him at a reduced rate for one or two years and give him a chance to pick up where he left off when he was injured. Barker is just entering what should be his prime years. He’s two years younger than Corey Potter and less than two years older than Jeff Petry.

    There might be a player here.

  • I get where you guys are coming from. What I look forward to is the day when we talk about good players in the greater context. Progress could be assumed to have occurred when we no longer have to consider adding the phrase “on the Oilers”.

    All I want is for us to attract good players. Period. Without the loser qualifier. So my question becomes: Is Barker one of those players? Does he have the potential to become one?

  • At the time of his signing, I thought Barker was worth the gamble, because 1.) the Oilers badly needed help on defence and couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) sign anyone better, 2.) his one good season in Chicago indicated that there might have been some potential left in him, and 3.) he’d be an RFA after the year so the organization would have some options with respect to trading him for another asset or resigning him.

    In no way did his draft pedigree factor into me liking that signing, as the draft bust label was already placed on him when Minnesota bought him out. Actually, the fact that management went after yet ANOTHER former first round draft pick really scared me (and still does). I’m starting to doubt this team has a pro scouting department and they just look for former first rounders in lieu of any diligent research.

    So the gamble didn’t work. Nothing lost (except $2M+ of Katz’s money), nothing gained. The team is barren enough at defence that they can gamble that roster spot on someone else next year. I’d like to see an article speculating on who that will be.

  • when we say “Katz’s money” is it really his money or isn’t there an insurance policy out on each player- you’d think there would be.

    The problem with the ideas of signing him for “half-next-season” is that we can’t according to the cba and still retain his rights. He’s due 2m minimum if we want to keep him. Whats the going rate for nhl defensemen now?

  • O.C.

    Is Sutton a top four D? I think you’d get a strong argument of ‘no’, but he’s been pulling top four minutes with the current state of the team.

    I’m not sure why a healthy Barker would be looked any different.

  • stevezie

    Maybe I’m the idiot, but I didn’t read this article as a shot at Struds, so much as an argument against the general idea that Cam Barker is any good. Argue the wording all you like, but the jist of Spector and Struds’ comments was “Barker is any good.” Brownlee also seems to be arguing that Barker is any good.

    As LT’s recent article shows, “top 4-D” is a tricky term to define. I thought Willis was ignoring the semantics and respectfully arguing that Cam Barker is not any good. I don’t the specifics of Spector or Strudwick’s statements really play into this idea.

    Because I’m a weiner, I think Brownlee and Willis are both right. Barker’s NHL resume is not impressive, but there’s a level of raw ability there that makes him worth a cheap gamble. He has thirty games to settle this argument.