He knows how to handle a holding pattern.
The Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman has carved a career in professional hockey as a player who can wait his turn. And when his number’s called, Barberio delivers.
At the start of the 2014-15 season, Barberio was the victim of a number’s crunch along the Bolts’ blue line. With the additions of top four defensemen Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison in the offseason to a defense that already included Victor Hedman, Matt Carle, Radko Gudas, Andrej Sustr and Eric Brewer, the Lightning had limited spots available among its three defensive pairings.
Barberio was seen as a luxury, a hard-working up-and-comer who could challenge the starters in practice and fill in occasionally when another defenseman needed a rest or was injured. The 24-year-old was a healthy scratch in 15 of the Bolts’ first 18 games.
But circumstances changed.
Hedman fractured his finger in game five and missed a month-and-a-half of the season. Brewer was traded to Anaheim a day before Hedman’s return. Garrison sat out four games with an injury around the Christmas break.
Barberio has seen his playing time increase as a result, skating in 14 of 17 games from Dec. 13-Jan. 17.
“The coaches have been really honest with me, and they’re telling me what the situation is,” Barberio said. “It’s easy to be patient when the coaches are open with you and they’re talking with you, you’re not just sitting in the dark thinking ‘OK, what am I doing?’ We’ve got a good team. We’ve got a lot of depth. I think part of that is the guys that aren’t playing are pushing the guys that are playing to be better because the guys that aren’t playing want to be in the lineup.”
On January 6, Gudas had knee surgery that will sideline him for the remainder of the regular season. Two weeks later, Carle went under the knife to repair torn adductors in his lower abdomen, a procedure that will force him to miss six to eight weeks.
With both regulars out, Barberio will become even more important to Tampa Bay’s success.
“I think with Barbs, he’s been in a tough situation because he sits, sits, sits and then plays,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “And, so sometimes it looks like his leash is shorter just because he doesn’t get in as often, but we’ve been nothing but pleased with Barbs. To continue to play at a high level, especially when he misses games, it’s pretty remarkable that he can do that…He’s had to wait his turn to get in, and now, with injuries, you need to see depth. I’m pretty sure Barbs is going to rise to the occasion.”
Barberio has played the role of spot starter well over the last year and a half. In 2013-14, he skated in 49 games, recording a plus rating in 40 of them and collecting 10 points (five goals, five assists). The team re-signed Barberio to a one-year, one-way contract on June 27.
“I’d rather be a regular for sure, but, at this point in my career, I’m still trying to progress as a player,” Barberio said. “This is where I’ve been slotted, and it’s up to me really if I want to keep moving. I’ve got to keep working hard and doing the right things in practice.”
A sixth-round draft pick (152nd overall) of the Lightning in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Barberio spent three seasons in the American Hockey League, the first two with the Norfolk Admirals (2010-11, 2011-12) and the last in Syracuse (2012-13). The Montreal native played regularly during those seasons, skating in 68, 74 and 73 games, respectively, and he said there was an adjustment period going from playing full time in the AHL to spending the majority of his NHL time on the bench.
“Last year was a change for me,” Barberio said. “I’d never been used to sitting out long periods and then having to come in and play. Coming into this year, I definitely feel more comfortable in this role now.”
Barberio, who made his NHL debut on April 9, 2013, versus Ottawa, is the answer to a little-known Lightning trivia question. He, along with Steven Stamkos and Cedric Paquette, are the only players in franchise history to score his first two NHL goals in the same game (Jan. 19, 2014, at Carolina).
“It was amazing,” Barberio said. “I remember I scored in the first and I was going out for the second period and (Rob Kennedy, the Bolts’ assistant equipment manager) was saying, ‘You won’t do it again, Barbs.’ I was sitting there like, ‘Why not?’ I just remember the puck coming out there, and it was on a platter for me. I cranked it and it ended up going off a stick top corner. It looked good, but, yeah, it was an amazing feeling to get two in one game, something I’ll never forget for sure.”
Now a regular in the Lightning lineup, Barberio’s comfort level in the NHL has reached an all-time high.
And his game continues to improve as a result.
“He did a tremendous job of dealing with being in and out of the lineup by staying in game shape and doing extra work,” Sustr said. “He was always able to fill in and step in for guys that were out of the lineup. I think he’s been playing really well lately. As he gets in a rhythm of playing games, his confidence is going to go up. He’s a really good player, and he proved that at a lot of levels whether that be juniors or the American League. I think he’s just going to get better.”