After becoming the first player in the storied history of the men's ice hockey program at Miami University to earn league rookie of the year honors, forward Riley Barber knew nothing would come easy as a sophomore.
"Nobody really knew who I was as a freshman so it was easy for me to go out there and play against certain guys, but this year it's definitely changed," Barber told NHL.com. "I'm usually out there against the best defensive pairing of every team and the best shutdown line."
Barber's game has improved as a result.
"It's helped me become a better player because you always have to give it 100 percent; I'm more confident in my ability to make plays and am not in panic mode," Barber said.
Plain and simple, Barber is a goal scorer. The Washington Capitals saw enough from the 6-foot, 198-pound right-handed shot to select him in the sixth round (No. 167) of the 2012 NHL Draft.
"I think there's still a lot of room for him to grow and that's a positive," Miami head coach Enrico Blasi told NHL.com. "He's got all the necessary tools needed to become a potential big-time player at the collegiate level and, obviously, the next level.
"The thing that Riley understands is that there's a lot of work to do but he's not afraid to do it."
Barber finished with a team-leading 15 goals and was second in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association with 39 points in 40 games as a freshman in 2012-13. Miami has since moved to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Barber is on pace to shatter those first-year totals this season, having already produced 10 goals and 24 points in 16 games.
His ability to come up big offensively is one reason Jim Johannson, who serves as general manager of the United States National Junior Team, added Barber to the list of players competing for roster spots at the U.S. select team camp in Minneapolis next week. The 2014 World Junior Championship will be held in Malmo, Sweden.
Barber was one of three returning players on the 26-player select roster that garnered a gold medal at the 2013 WJC in Ufa, Russia.
"I will never forget that experience," Barber said. "The most important thing is being able to come together as a team in such a short time. You need to put aside egos and do the best you can for the betterment of the team. Some guys will play more minutes on the power play and some will spend more time on the penalty kill, but our team goal was ultimately to win a gold medal and everybody did what they needed to do in order to attain that goal. That's what I remember most."
Barber had three goals, six points and a plus-1 rating in seven games at a tournament chock-full of NHL-caliber talent since it took place during the NHL work stoppage last December.
"The thing that Riley has done is score and that's something that you need in international play," U.S. National Junior Team coach Don Lucia said. "I remember talking to the great Tim Taylor, who had coached so many teams on the international stage. I asked him the most difficult part and he said the ability to score, and that's something Riley Barber has done whether on the World Junior level or college level at Miami.
"He's going to have to be a go-to guy for us from an offensive standpoint."
Barber is once again looking forward to donning the red, white and blue jersey at the World Junior Championship.
"I think I'd definitely take my leadership into the room and my play on the ice will affect how badly everyone else needs to play and how badly everybody else should want it," Barber said. "It would be an awesome experience to go back with some of the younger guys and some guys who didn't get the chance to put on the sweater last year. That's something I can't wait for."
While Barber has played with several different left wings, the one constant has been center Austin Czarnik.
"We know where each other will go and where the other will play," Barber said. "It's great to be with a player like that with his speed and playmaking ability, so I'm really fortunate."
Czarnik, the team captain, leads the Ohio-based school with 17 assists and is tied for the team-lead with Barber with 24 points.
Another area Barber excels at is on the penalty kill. He's struck for a team-leading three shorthanded goals in 2013-14 after hitting once while a man short last season.
"The secret to the PK is knowing that the power-play unit wants it easy; they don't want to be pressured," Barber said. "If you pressure them in their zone and they're breaking the puck out, there may be opportunities to go on the offensive. The most skilled players don't often want to work that hard and I feel [associate coach] Brent Brekke has had a huge part in developing my penalty kill throughout the two years I've been here.
"When you get a chance for a loose puck he definitely gives us the freedom to go on the offense, and me and [Czarnik] have taken full responsibility in making that happen."
Under Blasi's guidance, 12 players from Miami have earned All-America status and four were named CCHA Player of the Year. He's also helped develop players at the next level: 23 have signed NHL contracts since Blasi took over as head coach in 1999-2000. In the past five years, 18 RedHawks have signed NHL contracts and 25 have been selected in the NHL Draft.
Does Blasi feel Barber could become one of the finest he's ever had?
"Riley is up there as far as having an understanding of the game at a high level, so he's very similar to players we've had in the past who have had that same skill set," Blasi said. "I think his understanding of leadership is slowly growing. It's a process for the young guys to learn how to lead at this level. He's understanding that a little bit more every day."
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Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer