a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Saturday, 5 May 2012

05/05/12 Cam Barker Then and Now

A lot can change after draft day. Normally when you're picking in the top three it's a safe bet that you're getting one of the best players available in a given year, but that's not always the case. As Jonathan Willis said at the Cult of Hockey, once we have more data on a player than his Junior performance, it's important to listen to that data. But there were warning signs with Cam Barker even in his draft year.

Back in 2004, Red Line Report had this to say about Barker:

"Big, highly mobile defender has easily the most offensive upside of any blue-liner in the draft. Hardly had to break a sweat this year while putting up outstanding numbers. Didn't often perform at the top of his game - played nearly 30 minutes a game and seemed to pace himself. Is most effective when he forcefully takes the puck and heads up ice, leading the break and creating dangerous odd-man rushes. Has the ability to undress opponents as he goes end-to-end. Excellent vision and can make plays at top speed. A top notch PP quarterback with a hard shot who makes good decisions in puck distribution. Still a work in progress in own zone, but improved steadily in both physical play and positioning as the year progressed. While he lacks explosive speed, he has good agility and his overall mobility is above average."

The key points are in bold. We can't blame Red Line for being high on this player, as they projected him as the third-best prospect heading into the 2004 draft and that's exactly where he went. And though there are clearly a number of positives in Barker's WHL game, the factors that would eventually derail his NHL career were already evident in 2004.

Barker was 24th overall in WHL scoring with 21-44-65 in 69 games, which are solid numbers. That's 0.94 points per game as a draft eligible player. However, there is evidence that what scouts were seeing in 2003-04 was propped up by a little luck. Barker's Medicine Hat Tigers were the second best team in the WHL, and five of his teammates were ahead of him in overall league scoring. Four of them were in the top twelve in the league. With 277 goals for, the Tigers were by far the highest scoring team in the WHL that year, and so we shouldn't be surprised that Barker racked up a WHL career-high in assists and points.

Following that season, the Tigers continued to be at the top of the WHL's Eastern Conference for two more years and Barker went along for the ride. He only played 78 games over those two seasons, scoring 20-46-66 for 0.84 points per game. That represents a regression in production from Barker in seasons when he should have been annihilating the competition; especially on a good team. Bouts with mononucleosis and other injuries in these key development years may have hurt his development. Curing the ills in his game required playing time and practice, but his chance to work on actual defense and positioning before turning pro was cut short.

But it's not as though Barker was rushed to the NHL. He split time between the AHL and NHL in both 2006-07 and 2007-08 but in that time seemingly never gained the aptitude for play at the highest level.

Barker had similar good fortune to his draft year in the 2008-09 NHL season. The Chicago Blackhawks were the fourth-highest scoring team in the league that year with 260 Goals For. Unsurprisingly, Barker's high water mark came that season with 6-34-40. Finding a defenseman who could score six goals was not especially difficult in 2008-09, and those 34 assists were largely the result of a highly offensive team.

What can we learn from the case of Cam Barker?

Some players improve on their shortcomings and some do not, but if a player is not going to play in the NHL, the reason is probably already apparent. Red Line nailed the problems with Rob Schremp (Selfish, petulant, attitude of entitlement, bad teammate) in that same year, and they were also aware that Alexander Radulov had off-ice issues and problems with authority. No scouting service is perfect, but most can see the cracks in players that are just waiting to widen against stiffer competition.

If a player does not improve on what is holding them back, there is no reason to force the issue and keep them in the NHL. It's not as though Barker was projected as a sound positional defenseman back in Junior and then suddenly he wasn't anymore. That skill just never came. He was drafted third overall on his offensive tools, which also failed to mature at a high level, and the results were in before he came to Edmonton.

Up until now the Oilers were in a stage of their rebuild where signing an offensive defenseman who had possibly been overlooked was a good strategy. Barker was not that man before and he certainly isn't now. Sometimes that's just the way it goes, even with players who were once very highly regarded. Let's hope the Oilers learn the lesson and are better for it.

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