TAMPA — The path Mark Barberio cut throughout his entire career looks very similar.
Though each step along that path has seen the 23-year-old defenseman climb higher and higher, the route to get to that next step looks familiar.
Never considered a high-end prospect, Barberio always had to bide his time, work his way into the lineup and prove himself to the point where he couldn’t be taken out of the lineup.
His rookie year in the NHL has followed right in line.
A healthy scratch for 10 of the first 12 games of the season, in and out of the lineup for the following two months, Barberio again had to watch and wait. Now, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has a hard time taking him out of the lineup.
“He kind of had a nervous game to him probably for the first 25 or 30 games, but I think he’s gotten a little bit of that attitude where ‘I actually think I belong in this league, I can play here’,’’ Cooper said. “So I think the game is slowing down for him a little bit, which you hope it does for a lot of the rookies and clearly he is taken advantage of it. So it’s really hard to pull him out of the lineup right now.’’
When Barberio turned pro, after a successful three-year run with Moncton in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the 2008 sixth-round pick didn’t find his way into the lineup right way in Norfolk, going through the same routine - watch and wait for his turn. By his second year he was named the AHL defenseman of the year after scoring 13 goals and 61 points helping lead Norfolk to a Calder Cup championship.
Though the process has been a bit slower in his first NHL season, it’s following the same route.
“I was in and out (of the lineup) that first year in Norfolk, but that process when by a lot faster,’’ Barberio said. “I would say by November or December I found myself becoming a regular that year. This year it’s taking a bit more time, which makes sense because we have a lot of good defenseman on this hockey team and we’ve been winning games. So when I did get my chance I just needed to try to stay in the lineup as best as I can.’’
While not necessarily a regular on the blue line at this point as the Lightning currently carry eight defensemen on the roster, Barberio definitely looks like a different player at this juncture of the season than he did in the early stages. He’s more active with the puck in the offensive zone, looks more comfortable while doing so and is making plays.
Barberio scored his first career goal in Carolina on Jan. 19 jumping down low on the power play and added a second in that same game with a one-timer from the center slot. In Saturday’s victory against Colorado he found the back of the net again for his third goal in three games.
“He is completely engaged in the game,’’ Cooper said. “He’s not letting the game come to him, he’s going after the game. He’s really been kind of back to the Barbs that we knew the last couple of years, really jumping into plays, his timing is right and he has command when he has the puck.’’
It’s been a noticeable difference.
“Barbs is coming into his own, he’s one of those guys this was bound to happen to,’’ center Tyler Johnson, a teammate of Barberio for three years. “He’s a great player and meant so much for us in the AHL the last two years and has a tremendous amount of skill. It was just a confidence thing and it’s great that he’s getting that, now he’s wheeling and playing well.’’
Throughout this trek, Barberio always believed in himself and he would find a way.
“I’ve never really doubted my ability, I know I can play the game of hockey, but it just takes time to get used to this level and try to get comfortable with the level,’’ Barberio said. “I think that as the weeks have gone by here I feel like I’ve been improving and that’s the biggest thing.’’