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Barker poised to silence critics, return to form

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
In 71 games over two seasons with the Minnesota Wild, Cam Barker produced two goals and 12 points. As a highly-touted prospect originally selected by the Chicago Blackhawks third overall in 2004, it's hard to understand how his career had reached a crossroad at the age of 25.

From league management, to fans and anxious media ready to sour his name through harsh rhetoric, Barker has heard it all. It's no surprise that he's not expected to perform well and reclaim past success, but those opinions have since become old news as the 2011-12 season approaches.

"Everybody knows I had a tough year last year," he said during a visit to Oilers Hockey School in St. Albert.

So much so, in fact, that Minnesota elected to buy out the remaining season of his three-year, $9.25 million contract on June 30, 2011.

That circumstance allowed Edmonton to make a pitch on July 1, eventually landing Barker on a one-year deal 30 minutes into the NHL's free agency period.

It was a noble decision. With keen supporters ready to witness a return to the post-season, there's little room to hide in Oil Country. It could become a pressure-cooker, but Barker has made it clear he's ready to bounce back, microscope or not.

"I think that pressure is always there," he said. "There will always be those expectations. I have those as well, which is a good thing. It shows that I want to be a better player and won't settle for something less.

"I'm looking forward to getting back on track here in Edmonton; being productive, putting up points and being that go-to guy that I want to be."

Barker was chosen behind only Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin in 2004, and early signs pointed to a prosperous career as a Blackhawk. Four seasons between Chicago and the team's AHL farm club in Rockford set the stage for a staggering 2008-09 campaign. In 68 games, he recorded six goals, 40 points, and appeared to be gaining steam as one of the league's most revered young defenders.

Just a year later, Barker's numbers slipped before he was shipped to Minnesota, missing out on the Blackhawks' 2009-10 Stanley Cup championship. It's been a struggle ever since.

"As bad as things got, I'm glad it worked out this way," he said.

"I'm excited. [Edmonton is] a great young team and things are moving in the right direction. It's going to be good to be around that enthusiasm and to grow as a team. It's a great opportunity for me. It worked out great."

Barker's trade to the Wild meant he was unable to embrace Chicago's dream run, but he was around long enough to see what was needed to assemble a champion.

"It's unbelievable to see the similarities [between Edmonton and Chicago]," he said. "A bunch of great young talent all coming together and growing at the same time. You look down the road a couple years and Chicago won the Stanley Cup. I think that's where this is heading.

"It's all part of growing together as a team, getting better every day and things will fall into place."

Although the Stanley Cup is most certainly the end-goal, a more tangible alternative would see the Oilers secure a post-season berth in 2011-12. The team's elite talent will be another year more experienced, and new additions such as Ryan Smyth, Eric Belanger and others will add another dimension to this up-and-coming squad.

"It's super similar to Chicago," Barker said. "I was a young guy then. As long as you grow and get better every day, I think that year of experience is huge. It's going to be beneficial for us this year.

"I've talked to the coaches and some of the guys on the team. The post-season is the goal for sure."

Acknowledging next year's importance, Barker has been able to quell rampant criticism through his passion to succeed. It's that same attitude that may contribute to a renaissance here in Edmonton.

"It's absolutely a huge year for me," he said. "I'm looking forward to having a good training camp and a good year overall. I'm really excited to get going."

At 25-years-old, he's still young by NHL standards. There's no need to begin a rushed program, but the one-year deal presents an excellent opportunity for Barker and the Oilers.

Both stand to benefit.

Follow Ryan Dittrick on Twitter | @ryandittrick

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