Last night, the Edmonton Oilers played the Florida Panthers. It was their 12th game in the month of March. Cam Barker did not dress; he has not dressed for any of the dozen games the team has played this month.
It’s an interesting situation. Earlier in the month, Tom Renney was asked by Gene Principe about carrying eight blueliners and his seemingly odd decision to have Andy Sutton outside the lineup on many nights. His answer to the question was illuminating:
It’s a coach’s decision. You like to base your decision on performance for sure, and that being said we’ve got to give others an opportunity to play. Andy’s secured, and that’s important to us naturally. At the same time, as I say that others aren’t, so we’ve got to make sure people have an opportunity to show what they’re capable of doing so we can make informed decisions on them.
At the time, I concluded that we would likely see Sutton, Barker and Theo Peckham rotated in and out of the lineup for the rest of the season. That hasn’t happened; instead, the coach has rotated Sutton and Peckham.
The obvious read is that the Oilers have made a decision on Barker. Barker’s last game – February 29th against St. Louis – was a disastrous outing following a string of other disastrous outings. While the coach refused to toss him under the bus (saying “He was OK”), Terry Jones rightfully called out an ugly effort and my post-game grade read like this:
Just over a minute into the game, Cam Barker made an ill-advised pinch and sent the Blues away on a two-on-one. Naturally, the Blues scored on it. He also got beat on the Nichol goal. I picked one shift to just watch him check Vladimir Sobotka, and Sobotka just effortlessly gained position on him time and again. The night was characterized by bad decisions and inefficient defensive zone coverage, at least over the first two periods. He added a bad penalty in the third. Few players do so much bad with so little ice-time.
Things were so bad that the Oilers’ official recap said things like “Cam Barker got caught up-ice on an ill-advised and unusually soft pinch,” “Barker stepped up in the neutral zone without accomplishing the stop as he’d intended” and “[t]he Oilers’ momentum was squashed early on when Barker was assessed a slashing minor.” When a player gets called out three times in the take on the team’s own website, it’s time to start looking out the window for horsemen.
It’s not like the St. Louis game was an isolated incident, either. Cam Barker has easily been the worst of the Oilers’ regular defensemen since the first day he stepped into the lineup. All season he has been either the very worst or close to it in terms of scoring chance plus/minus. David Staples, who looks at scoring chances a different way – trying to analyze who directly contributed to each play – came away with the same data. Barker isn’t even Marc-Andre Bergeron, creating offense while allowing chances the other way – he’s been impotent offensively, recording one point in an hour of power play time and another point in 330 minutes in other situations.
There are those who felt that the Barker gamble – on a one-year deal for a ridiculous $2.25 million after he was bought out by Minnesota – was a reasonable one. Regardless of what I say, some will continue to feel that way. However, Barker was a guy highly unlikely to turn into a top-four defenseman even when the Oilers signed him this summer. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
2010-11 was a career-killer of a season for Barker. His even-strength scoring, which has always been rather tepid, fell off a cliff into stone hands territory. The power play, which is probably going to need to be his bread and butter if he is going to stay in the league, was not a friendly place for him the way it had been in the past. Beyond that, he’s essentially a sub-average third-pairing defenseman at even-strength and has been for years – even when he was racking up the points in Chicago in 2008-09.
I took a fair bit of flak on Twitter at the time from people who felt I was being overly negative about a guy with clear offensive ability and awesome draft pedigree. The data was patently obvious, though: Barker had been carefully handed the easiest possible ice-time (lots of time in the offensive zone, lots of time against the worst possible opponents) and he’d routinely made a mess of it. This year, mostly on the third pairing, he’s done the same thing. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. The only thing that should have been a surprise was the Oilers blowing money on him in the first place and the lengths some took to defend him even after the mistake should have been obvious.
Fortunately, it appears that we’re at the end of this particular experiment. Barring a last-gasp assessment period, some intentional tanking or significant injuries, we probably won’t see much of Barker the rest of the way. With Tom Renney’s Oilers future possibly dependent on how the team plays to close out the season (they’re 5-4-3 this month, with Devan Dubnyk doing his best to save the coach’s job), I’m not expecting that to change. And with Barker’s contract up, it’s possible we won’t see the team’s worst defenseman of 2011-12 dress again as an Edmonton Oiler.