It’s been nearly two months since Mark Barberio has played in an official hockey game. The fourth-year Colorado Avalanche defenseman is the most recent victim of the at-capacity depth that Avs general manager Joe Sakic has worked so hard to build over the past few years.
With the Avalanche blueline fully stocked and healthy, Barberio, the Avs’ seventh defenseman, doesn’t get too many opportunities to dress in game action. And while it’s no doubt a good “problem” to have for the Avalanche, it comes at a cost for players like Barberio, who are then limited to just practices with the team rather than playing against opposition in a win-or-lose setting.
As Barberio and the Avs were in Buffalo to take on the Sabres, Sakic and head coach Jared Bednar presented Barberio with an opportunity to head to their AHL affiliate in Loveland and play with the Colorado Eagles on a conditioning assignment. Missing game action, Barberio knew it was a good opportunity.
“Joe and Bedsy (Bednar) came up to me (a few days ago) in Buffalo and offered me the chance to come down and get some games here and get some game action and I thought that was a really good idea,” said Barberio after his first practice with the Eagles on Thursday. “As much as you work hard in practice and in the gym, nothing really mimics game situations.”
As Colorado’s seventh D-man, Barberio plays a niche role. While he’s technically on the Avs 23-man roster, he’s often a healthy scratch and is only called upon when absolutely necessary, i.e., replacing an injured defenseman. In a role like that it’s tough to maintain “game condition,” meaning the proper physical fitness, as well as the speed of their play and decision-making.
“My job up there (with the Avs) is to make sure I’m ready when I’m called upon to try and help the team win and that’s my goal. There hasn’t been too many injuries on defense for a while now so it’s hard to get some game action,” added Barberio.
When a player like Barberio has remained healthy-scratched for a longer period of time and it’s been a while since they’ve played in a game, a conditioning assignment to the AHL affiliate is often the option, as is the case for Barberio. With the Eagles playing four games in the next six days at home, this is a perfect timing for Barberio to get his game conditioning back — which was likely Sakic’s and Bednar’s thinking when they presented their well-rested D-man with this opportunity.
“It’s huge,” Barberio said of getting back to playing. “I’ve played a lot of games in this league (AHL) and I know it’s a competitive league and it’s tough to play in.”
This won’t be Barberio’s first AHL rodeo, far from it actually. In addition to the brief two-game stint he played in Loveland last season, Barberio has played over 300 games (including the playoffs) in the American League, recording just shy of 200 total points in his minor-league tenure. Most notably, Barberio earned the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s best defender in 2011-12, while also helping the Norfolk Admirals capture the Calder Cup as league champions that same season.
Having played in both of hockey’s top-two leagues, Barberio knows the ropes, and he knows the similarities and the differences, of which he says there are very few.
“I think there’s actually not that big of a difference compared to the speed but I think there’s a big difference I think in the structure of play,” said Barberio. “In terms of speed in skill — obviously the top-end guys at the NHL level are special players — but the difference between the top guys in the AHL and your bottom-pairing or bottom-half forward lines, there’s really not that big of a difference.
“It really comes down to attention to detail and being able to play with structure...it’s a good league. Like I said, I’ve played a lot of games, a lot of years in this league and it definitely prepares you for the next level.”
In addition to getting back to game condition, Barberio says there are a few other things he hopes to work on during his stint with the Eagles.
“I want to play my game. I want to be quick with the puck, I want to get the puck up to our forwards, get some speed,” he said. “I saw a lot of these guys (the Eagles) in (Avs) training camp and some guys that have come up to play when there were injuries and I know (they have) a lot of speed up front.
“I want to play just a solid all-around game and making sure defensively I’m ending plays quickly, whether it’s with my body or my stick. And if there’s a chance to be involved in the rush, I want to try and provide a bit of offense, a little spark, and play a good, solid all-around hockey game.”
When the opening puck drops at the Budweiser Events Center on Feb. 7, it will have been 51 long days since Barberio has played an organized hockey game. The 29-year-old veteran isn’t nervous, however.
“Maybe there might be a bit of nerves to start the game, but once the game gets going you’re focused and you’re focusing on what your job is and helping the team win, that’s my focus,” he said.
It’s all business for Barberio, who will likely play a key role for the Eagles while he’s on his conditioning assignment, however long that may be. Despite his 51-game absence, don’t expect him to take long to readjust to the game he already knows so well.
“Coming here, my goal is get my feet under me a bit because I haven’t played in almost two months, or close to two months,” Barberio said. “I’ve had instances in the past where I’ve missed quite a bit of time and come back and I feel like I re-adapt quickly and apply my game quickly. That’s what I’m hoping for over this stint.
“I want to come down here and get my conditioning, but at the same time, being a part of the Eagles, I want to win hockey games. That’s why I’ve been playing pro for so long is because I’m a competitive player and I hate to lose. While I’m here, I want to win every game I’m involved in.”
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