VANCOUVER - Cam Barker finished third in a two-horse race at the 2004 entry draft and has been paying for it ever since.
The trajectory of the defenceman’s National Hockey League career has turned precariously downward since the Chicago Blackhawks chose Barker third 8½ years ago, right after the Washington Capitals drafted Alex Ovechkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins took Evgeni Malkin.
That’s not a photo you want to be in if you’re Barker. Ovechkin and Malkin have three Hart Trophies between them. Sometimes we’ve wondered if Barker had one heart.
But the Vancouver Canucks don’t need the 26-year-old from Winnipeg to be one of the best three players from his draft class. They’ll be elated if he’s one of the best six or seven defencemen on their team, which signed the free agent to a one-year, $700,000 contract before it opened training camp on Sunday.
After negotiating the deal for the eighth NHL defenceman on Vancouver’s roster, Canuck assistant general manager Laurence Gilman explained Barker’s situation this way: “Expectations flow from your draft position. It’s not his fault he went third. But you get picked that high and teams have expectations that are hard to meet. We’ve had our eye on him for a long time. We think he can be a good, all-around defenceman in this league. Whether he meets someone’s expectation for what a third-overall pick should be, we don’t care about that. ”
Barker was a regular, albeit underwhelming, defenceman in Chicago when the Blackhawks traded him in 2010 to the Minnesota Wild. The deal was a disaster in St. Paul, where fans watched homegrown high school hero Nick Leddy go to Chicago and flourish.
The Wild bought out Barker’s contract before last season, which allowed him to sign as a free agent with the Edmonton Oilers. His year was wrecked by an ankle injury that required surgery and four months off.
Barker had just two points in 25 games, but averaged 18:21 of ice time and was even in plus/minus on the second-worst team in the NHL.
Barker kept busy during the lockout on a 25-game contract with the American Hockey League’s Texas Stars. It allowed NHL scouts to see him play — he had eight points in 23 games and was minus-five — but also gave Barker the chance to work with Stars’ coach Willie Desjardins, who had coached him in junior in Medicine Hat.
Barker not only has his health back, but his confidence, too.
“You learn a lot about yourself,” he said Sunday about the struggle to stabilize his career. “It was a long road back. If you asked me five years ago if I would have been playing games in the (AHL) trying to get back to the point where I was, I never would have imagined that.
“I think it’s made me a better person; I’m able to deal with a lot more now and I definitely appreciate it a lot more. I’ve worked extremely hard to get back to this point and I’m going to make sure it counts.
“I know what I’m capable of. It might be different than what some people think of me now. But obviously, I’ve got to prove people wrong and come out and play well from the get-go and just keep building on that.”
Barker remembered the Canucks tried to sign him after the buyout in Minnesota and said Sunday he wanted to go where he was really wanted. There were a few other NHL teams interested this winter.
He likes the Canucks’ ability to challenge for a championship and is close to his adopted home in Penticton.
“He’s a young defenceman that ... has been through, what, four teams in the last little while?” Canuck head coach Alain Vigneault said. “You only get so many opportunities in life. Our guys have always felt he had a tremendous amount of potential. We’re going to give him an opportunity.
“I’m reminded of (Canuck winger) Chris Higgins a little bit. He went through four teams in a short little while and came here and has become a real, strong part of our team. Real low maintenance and he just comes to play. Maybe Cam can be that type of player if he gets what he needs to do now, understands it and comes to play every day.”
That “every day” part is essential. No one gets drafted third in the NHL without having a tonne of ability. But it has to be applied consistently. It’s up to Barker what becomes of his career now.
He will be competing for playing time against Chris Tanev, who was never drafted, Keith Ballard and Andrew Alberts.
“It’s small steps,” Barker said. “I just want to come here and have a positive impact. I’ve got a lot to prove, but I feel good and confident.”
Asked if he wishes he’d never been first runner-up in the Ovechkin-Malkin sweepstakes, Barker said: “I know people look at the draft and they look at what those two guys have done. We wouldn’t be having this talk if I was a second- or third-round pick.
“I was in Chicago and doing what I was supposed to and then I got traded and had some injuries and it’s a different conversation now. But I’m still that same player.”
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