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Improved defense has Mark Barberio hungry for more during the offseason

by Peter Pupello / Tampa Bay Lightning

Mark Barberio has big plans this summer.

Coming off capturing a berth in the Calder Cup championship with the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League, adding to an already-impressive list of hockey accolades that would certainly serve as the envy of any young prospect, Barberio is looking to accomplish what would perhaps be his biggest career achievement yet: making the jump to the National Hockey League.

If this past season serves as any indication, it appears the native of Montreal, Quebec is well on his way.

Barberio put up AHL career-high numbers with Norfolk in just his second year as a professional, recording 13 goals and 61 points in 74 regular season games while nearly doubling his point total from the previous year. He also quarterbacked an Admirals’ power play that finished the regular season with a 21.7 percent efficiency rate, good for the second-best mark in the AHL.

But to his credit, Barberio is a strong skater with a quick ability to move the puck in and out of the zone, so while his offensive skills and ability to join the rush have never been in question, it was the improvement he displayed in his own defensive game that perhaps has him primed to make his best showing to date when it comes time for Lightning training camp this fall.

“Coming into this past season, I definitely made it a priority for myself to be more responsible on defense,” Barberio said. “If I ever got the chance to chip in offensively, I would, but I really didn’t want that to take away from my defensive game. Fortunately I was able to find the proper balance with both.”

In 2010-11, his first campaign in the professional ranks, Barberio started right where he left off from the previous year playing in the QMJHL, again showcasing his ability to contribute offensively by notching nine goals and 31 points in 68 games.

It made for an admirable debut, with just one caveat: he was also a minus-1.

While at the time, that statistic alone didn’t come across as at all glaring, the same can’t be said when compared to Barberio’s plus-28 rating that he earned at the end of this past season, which accurately summed up just how much the young blueliner rounded out his overall game in just a short year’s span.

“It was just a matter of time for him,” Admirals head coach Jon Cooper said. “Those offensive numbers will always be there, partly because I think a lot of those guys who come from juniors tend to get pigeon-holed into being just an offensive player. So I was really happy for him, to see him branch out and look where he ended up. As far as his defensive game went, it really took a step and really took off for that matter.”

Cooper also added that playing Barberio in a number of different situations this past season, including in more areas of the ice, helped him avoid becoming too accustomed to excelling in just one aspect of the game. The strategy seemed to pay off, as Barberio not only put up points, but also through solid defense, proved in part responsible for helping the Admirals’ goaltending tandem of Dustin Tokarski and Jaroslav Janus finish third in the league with just 180 goals allowed on the season.

As a result of his improved play at both ends, he was most recently awarded with the Eddie Shore Award, annually given to the player deemed to be the AHL’s top defenseman, at the conclusion of the 2011-12 regular campaign.

“It was a huge honor,” Barberio said. “There have been so many great players who have won this award, so it was very special to be mentioned in the same category as them.”

With new-found success also comes confidence, but for Barberio, a sixth-round draft pick by Tampa Bay in 2008, this is no time to become complacent as a result of basking in one’s past accomplishments. Rather, there is still work to be done.

Barberio and the Admirals recently completed an Eastern Conference Semifinal sweep of the St. John's IceCaps.  (Photo by John Wright/Norfolk Admirals)

When asked what he needed to focus on this summer in order to make a strong case for himself in front of the Lightning brass, Barberio said he would revert back to what worked so well for him this past season in Norfolk. That includes keeping his overall game simple, maintaining high awareness and smarts with the puck behind his own blueline, and staying within the framework of his own strengths in an effort to avoid doing too much.

“I really don’t want to change too much about my game,” Barberio added. “I feel like I always need to work on my footwork, being in the right place positionally, but if there are one or two things I have to change, it would be to get stronger and to keep getting faster. That’s how those guys at the NHL level play, so in order to keep up with them, I know I have to do whatever it takes just to match their intensity.”

The approach sounds as if it could be spot on should Barberio heed his own advice.

After all, Bolts head coach Guy Boucher is a huge fan of guys who compete, who are relentless on the puck, who are reliable in all three zones, and who present themselves as solid two-way players rather than mere individuals with specific inclinations.

Boucher also has an affinity for those who possess the right attitude, which Barberio too seems to have.

“I understand Steve Yzerman and Julien [BriseBois] have a plan for us young guys, and I totally agree with it,” Barberio said. “They want to make sure we get our time down here in the AHL and gain the right amount of experience before we get called up. So I hope to have a strong summer, and whenever I get my shot, I just hope to make the most of it.”

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