May 21, 2015

A ghost of a defenseman

What Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper - and his defensive coach Rick Bowness - have done to defenseman Mark Barberio this season is completely and utterly wrong. I don't care who the guy is; you don't treat players like this. It's things like this that make coaches lose their rooms and their jobs.

But I guess we should've seen this coming, as he'd only played in three of the first 18 games of the regular season. A streak that may have gone longer had I not called out Cooper on Twitter for it. Coincidentally or not, Barberio played the following game after that.

The biggest part of the problem - for there are many parts to this - is the lack of playing time, especially in playoffs.

Here's a well-liked player among his teammates, who put in 52 games of work in a difficult situation, and he excelled at it. The Lightning were down four defenseman, and Barberio was tasked to step in and help cover for that. And not only did he play well enough to have earned a spot in the roster, he was a key part of top-rated penalty killing units.

But right before and at the start of playoffs, all of those defensemen came back, and he hasn't been seen again. Not just in the lineup, but also by the media. He's become a ghost - someone no one either acknowledges nor talks about publicly, for whatever reason. Even people who work for the team, who probably see him on a regular basis, almost never mention him even as a part of the scratches.

What makes this all worse is that his head coach is the very man who helped him reach the NHL. Who leaned on him hard during their time together in the minor leagues and counted on Barberio to get the job done. And now, that same coach takes him apparently either for granted or has put him in the dog house - that part of the situation isn't clear from the outside looking in.

What is clear, however, is that Cooper is no longer a fan of Mark Barberio. And because of that, Barberio doesn't get to play. Which is completely unfair that it's come down to this. Barberio was praised all season long for doing everything that he was supposed to, for being able to step into a game seamlessly when he'd been sitting out for weeks without complaint, and yet he's been push aside like an empty coffee cup.

He does everything his coaches asks of him, and he's rewarded by sitting in the press box.

Now, people may give me crap for this, but I genuinely believe that he's just as good as Anton Stralman. In my opinion, the Lightning's current defensive depth is Victor Hedman being a bit ahead of the rest, then Stralman and Barberio, followed closely by Jason Garrison and Nikita Nesterov. Then it drops a bit to Braydon Coburn, and a bit more to Matt Carle. Finally, it's Luke Witkowski and then Andrej Sustr.

After last season, when the Lightning coaches were switching up defensive pairings all over the place, I got to see who Barberio played best with. And the guy that his playing style had the best fit with was Victor Hedman. By far. Not only were they very creative together and solidly responsible defensively, but offensively as well.

So my pairings, were I in charge of that for the team, would be Hedman-Barberio, Nesterov-Stralman, Garrison-Coburn, and then maybe rotate in Carle or Witkowski as necessary.

I have no problem with Andrej Sustr - I really don't. I'm sure he's a very nice guy and everything, but he does not fit in at all with this defense. He's not strong positionally, and instead tries to recover from his mistakes with his insanely long reach. Much of that time that actually works for him, but when it doesn't it's disastrous. He's definitely the weakest player in this type of system for the Lightning.

As for Nesterov, in the coaches' eyes he jumped over Barberio at the end of the regular season in the depth chart. Nesterov had shown more of an interest in being the offensive player that Barberio had been known as in the AHL, which is probably why. Barberio was content at being more of a stay-at-home defensive player, which is apparently not what the Lightning were hoping to get out of him at the NHL level. But that makes sense - if a guy was an offensive force in the minors, then chances are, that's what they'd want out of him in the majors. The trick is maintaining that defensive responsibility while doing playing more offensively at a higher level of play.

To be clear, when a defenseman is considered more "offensive", it's that he's being more of a playmaker rather than just a guy sitting at the blue line trying to keep the puck in the offensive zone. A "scoring" defenseman gets maybe 15 goals a year, but that's not very common. It's racking up the assists that give a defenseman a reputation for being an offensive player more so than goal scoring.

Now, is Barberio #2 defenseman material? No, not right now. But that's not the point here, either. People often get caught up in depth charts and assigning meaningless status to players as a way to evaluate them, when they ought to be looking at what abilities compliment other player's abilities. Barberio's ability compliments Hedman's in a way that no one else's can or does on the Lightning. That's all. That doesn't automatically mean he's the second-best defenseman on the team, however.

Another big part of Barberio's lineup problem is that the coaching staff has become very rigid this season in their thinking about the defense. They're determined to keep a right-shooting defenseman paired with a left-shooting defenseman. And as Sustr is a right-shooting defenseman, that means that he's automatically in the lineup, no matter what. So, naturally, that makes him the weakest spot in the defense, which other teams can exploit to their advantage - either through getting him to take a penalty, or overwhelming him on the ice.

Of course, Barberio hasn't done himself any favors by trying to be inconspicuous, either. Here's a guy who is very adept at flying under other people's radar when he chooses to. In this case, that's caused him to be overlooked even more, even as he's likely frustrated by the fact that he's sitting in limbo and black aces are being talked about more than he is. If you want people to notice you, and to perhaps give you a shot, then you have to make a little noise in order to their attention focused on you in the first place.

About the only good from this playoff run is that Barberio is eligible to get his name on the Stanley Cup, even if he doesn't play, and if the Lightning make it that far. Players had to have played at least 41 regular season games, or played in one playoff game, to qualify for that. It'd be a bittersweet and somewhat empty victory for him, I would guess, but it would help him out in the long run over his NHL career.

Despite Matt Carle being out of the lineup and questionable for Game 4 tomorrow, I'm not holding my breath that Barberio will make it into the lineup even if Carle is out. I'm actually expecting Cooper to go with a 12-forward / 6-defensemen setup, in fact. Which means that Nesterov will be in, and Barberio will still be sitting in the press box. If, by some quirk of fate Barberio does make it into the lineup, then I expect very limited playing time for him. It's clear that the coaches don't want him to play, so why give him playing time if they don't have to?

Is Barberio blameless in this situation? Of course not. I can think of a number of things that could've been done differently, and have mentioned a couple of them here already. But as the decision to play him or not lies primarily with the coaching staff, the burden of the situation rests more upon them than it does on him.

At this point, Barberio's a restricted free agent come July 1st, and I'm seriously hoping general manager Steve Yzerman lets him go. Or, at least, trades him. Barberio has earned better treatment than sitting in the press box as his coaches take him for granted. He's obviously been buried in the depth chart with the Lightning, so he's likely not going to get any more playing time were he re-signed - especially not by a coaching staff that has consistently shown no interest in playing him.

My greatest fear is that Yzerman does re-sign him, in fact. In which case, I would hope that Barberio jumps ship for Europe, since the current coaching staff likely won't change their minds about him. There's no point in sticking around if all you're going to end up doing is sitting in the press box for half the season and all of playoffs, after all.

So, Yzerman - let him go. Let him find another team that will actually give him a legitimate chance, instead of adding more defensemen to the roster so he can't play. His coaches apparently don't want him there, so why re-sign the poor guy? If you want to reward him for putting in the time and effort and helping out the team in a pinch, the let him find a new home. Give him that chance to be the defenseman that you wanted him to be on another team, since his current coaches won't.