While most likely out of playoff contention, the Blackhawks appear nonetheless to be on their way to a successful season (as compared with the previous decade and a half of futility) in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
The Hawks will probably finish over .500. They're 4-1 vs. Detroit this season. Their line-up is studded with young players who are emerging as NHL stars: Pat Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. And a couple of other, less heralded players have begun asserting themselves in new positions: Patrick Sharp as a left wing on kane and Toews' line, and Dustin Byfuglien who is starting to look like a force at power forward.
And,as they say, when it rains, it pours. There's another young Blackhawk who is quietly making huge strides, and whose game is transforming itself on almost a nightly basis. And of all these young players, his upside could be as high as anyone's.
Drafted 3rd overall in 2004 behind Ovechkin and Malkin, Barker was viewed as "the best of the rest" in his draft year. A big, raw-boned defenseman out of Medicine Hat in the WHL, he had played well for Canada in international competition, flashing unusual puck skills and power play instincts.
And then something happened. He struggled with a broken ankle in his first pro season at Norfolk (AHL). He looked tentative and so, so slow at times. Occasionally, and especially at the end of last season's 35 game stint with the Blackhawks, he would play with an edge, manhandling opposing forwards and showing his offensive skills. But then he'd revert back to the bumbling, slow, unsure style that made Hawk fans wonder if he was going to make it at all.
But recently, in the last five games, the stars seem to have aligned for Barker. And he literally looks like a totally different player, the one the Hawks thought they were getting in 2004. Barker's positional play has been almost flawless (which one can't always say about all-star Keith). His skating and passing are fast and assertive. He is pinching and scoring. And, above all, he is playing physically.
I suspect that playing with the underrated James Wisniewski is helping Barker quite a bit. It's perhaps no coincidence that Keith made great strides in his game while partnered with Wiz over parts of the previous two seasons. Wisniewski keeps the game simple and plays it well in all three zones. And he is said to be a great partner in a defensive pairing. Consistent, always communicating and picking up his teammates.
Regardless, for Barker, it's working on all cylinders right now. And we're starting to see the kind of player he can be. Speed kills, but size and skill together win Stanley Cups these days. Barker could, and just may, still regress, but his development arc appears to be going up overall. And a top 4 of Keith, Seabrook, Barker and Wisniewski no longer appears to be a liability.