It can be a slow, long process for most young defensemen with the ability to reach the NHL. After patience and attention to detail for several years, it becomes their time.
Mark Barberio, named the American Hockey League’s top defenseman in 2011-12, enters his fourth season with his best chance to win a spot on the Tampa Bay Lightning blue line. His puck-moving ability could be a valuable addition to the Bolts’ defense corps.
“I’m just approaching it the way I always have,” said Barberio, a sixth-round pick in 2008. “I just want to put my best foot forward, play my best hockey, and then it’s up to the coaches to decide whether I deserve to stay.
“I’ll just have to find a way to become consistent in this league. Things happen faster here. When you get the puck you’ve got to know right away what you’re doing with it. But there’s always a change of pace when you move up. It’s about adjusting your game.”
Barberio, 23, has played for Lightning coach Jon Cooper from the start of his pro career and evolved from a player expected to start in the East Coast Hockey League to an NHL prospect. The 6 foot 1, 200-pound Montreal native embraced the long journey and his numbers continued to impress.
He put up 22 points in 21 playoff games to help Moncton of the Quebec Junior Hockey League reach the Memorial Cup in 2009-2010. Barberio followed that up by 31 points in 68 games his first season in pro hockey with the Norfolk Admirals. He pushed his way into the conversation for an NHL spot in 2011-12 by posting 13 goals and 48 assists to go along with a plus/minus rating of plus-28 in leading the Admirals to the Calder Cup.
He’s been with me for three years and I know what he can do. Now he’s just got to show everybody else what he can do. - Jon Cooper
“He’s been with me for three years and I know what he can do,” Cooper said. “Now he’s just got to show everybody else what he can do. Can he keep up to the [NHL] speed? Can he think the game a little quicker, because the hockey IQ at this level is very high?”
Barberio looks to answer those questions in the preseason after getting two games with the Lightning last season. It was not easy playing against playoff-bound Ottawa and Pittsburgh, but he said he was thankful for that taste of the NHL and he learned some things that can push him forward.
He came to camp stronger after training with Lightning strength coach Mark Lambert in the offseason. Even though you must think the game much faster at the NHL level, Barberio said that taking a step back and letting the play come to you can make things easier.
“He’s got great offensive instincts,” Cooper said. “He knows when to jump in the play, he can move pucks and he was really good on the power play for us.
“Mark brings an enthusiasm to the game. There are guys that just have that “it” factor. When there’s a big part of a game and you need somebody to make a play, Mark was always one of those guys that made it for us in the minors. Is that going to translate to the NHL? I don’t know, but he’s done it in the past.”
Cooper said the advantage Barberio and many of the young players fighting for roster spots have is they have been used to winning, especially the last two seasons. They know what it takes. Barberio fought back from a slow start to post eight goals and 42 points with a plus-7 in the regular season and 15 points in 18 playoff games as the Syracuse Crunch reached the Calder Cup finals.
“It’s good to have short summers,” Barberio said. “That’s what you want.”
Barberio has been paired with veteran Eric Brewer early in camp and has shown his skating ability along with the pace to his game. He would have to go through waivers if he is sent down to the minors, so the Bolts will give him a long look.
The Lightning would like to have a short 2014 summer and playing better defense is the key to that. Barberio’s progress, especially in his own zone, could be a big part of that improvement.
“I’ve never tried to judge my game on points,” Barberio said. “My game is to be a puck mover, get the forwards going on offense and being solid defensively. My main goal is to always be a plus player. That’s a key factor in showing how well you play 5-on-5.”
Barberio has fit Cooper’s high-tempo, transition style. Now he must do it at the highest level.
“There’s more confidence that I’m used to [Cooper’s] system and I know the way he coaches,” Barberio said. “But there’s no room for taking anything for granted. Like everyone else, I’m just trying to earn a job.”