EDMONTON – If Cam Barker was superstitious, he wouldn’t be wearing jersey No. 13 at Edmonton’s training camp going into a season that stands to be a pivotal point in his young career.
It turns out Barker, who signed with the Oilers as a free agent after having his contract bought out by the Minnesota Wild last summer, asked for what many consider an unlucky number.
Having been drafted third overall behind only Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2004, many consider Barker an underperformer.
But the way he sees it, if he’s going to prove doubters wrong and rekindle his career, the number on his back will matter little compared to what he does on the ice.
“The way I think of it, the term I’d use is this is a bounce-back year,” said Barker. “Obviously, coming off a tough year with a couple pretty significant injuries, I’m looking to bounce back in a big way here.
“I’d like to be a major contributor this year and do what I do best. I feel great and I’m looking forward to playing some games.”
The 25-year-old was limited to just 52 games with the Wild last season and 70 games between Minnesota and Chicago in 2009-10 by injuries, primarily a nagging back problem.
Signed to a three-year contract worth US$9.25 million by Chicago in July 2009, Barker was traded to Minnesota Feb. 12, 2010 for Kim Johnsson and prospect Nick Leddy. When he didn’t turn things around, managing just one goal and four assists last season, Minnesota cut him loose.
It’s been quite a fall from grace for the big defenceman from Winnipeg. He had 40 points with Chicago in 2008-09 but has failed to live up to his draft day pedigree since.
“Last year was just one of those year and I’ve definitely moved on,” Barker said. “Last year, my confidence was low, for sure. You’re trying to come back from injuries and trying to find your groove.
“That’s something I had a really hard time doing. Coming in here, I’ve got that confidence from working hard and being ready. I’m feeling confident about my abilities. I feel amazing right now.”
As soon as Barker became available, Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini signed him to a one-year contract for $2.25 million. At that price, some believe Tambellini might have found a bargain with a big, physical defenceman who can produce points and play the power play.
“We expect him to log good minutes for us,” Tambellini said. “He can play on the power play. He can match-up. He’s strong and he’s a big man. I think he brings a lot to us.”
With Ryan Whitney coming off ankle surgery and a blue-line group that could use added experience and offensive punch, Barker fills a need.
“He has NHL ability and he’s coming here with a clean slate,” added Tambellini. “We just want him to relax and be part of this group. He’s still a young guy. Sometimes, it just takes some time to mature.”
With as much time as he spends antagonizing opposing defencemen around the net, Ryan Smyth, back for a second tour in Edmonton after being acquired from Los Angeles, is as familiar as anybody with Barker.
“He’s hard to play against,” Smyth said. “What I’ve noticed here, and in the weeks leading up to camp, is he’s very creative. He has an offensive side to his game. He’s got some poise and patience.
“Everybody goes through ups and downs throughout their career. He’s on a one-year deal and I know he’s looking for a great year. I’m looking forward to being a part of that with him.”
A healthy Barker, who has been paired with Tom Gilbert at training camp, sees the Oilers as the right team and Edmonton as the right place for him to re-establish himself.
“It’s an up-and-coming young team and it’s an exciting time to be an Oiler,” he said. “There’s not one reason why I wouldn’t pick Edmonton. First and foremost, I want to go out and compete and do what I love to do.”
As for jersey No. 13, when the Oilers traded Andrew Cogliano and it became available, Barker put in his bid. Nothing unlucky about it.
“It almost works the other way for me,” Barker said. “It’s the number I wore when I was younger. It was the number my grandfather picked for me.
“I had to pick a new number and he said, ‘pick 13.’ When Cogliano got moved, I wanted No. 13 for sure. I’m thrilled to have it and my grandpa is going to be excited, too.”