On the Mark: Norfolk Rookie Barberio Impresses Cooper, Yzerman

When he’s not picking up pucks after a morning skate or sweeping the bus after a road trip, Norfolk Admirals defenseman Mark Barberio is slowly making his way to becoming a NHL card-carrying member.

It's quite a change for Barberio, whose status as an American Hockey League (AHL) player was once in doubt. Norfolk coach Jon Cooper said Barberio was nearly headed to the Florida Everblades (ECHL) to hone his skills.

“He’s is the youngest player on the team at 20,” said Cooper, who is behind the bench in his first professional season after coaching in juniors. “We thought that maybe he should go to the ECHL to get some time there, but we had some injury troubles and it has worked out fortunately."

"One thing I like about Mark is his work ethic and that he wants to get better on and off the ice. He works his butt off. You can’t have enough of those guys. And when you look at his talent set, you’re like: ‘He may be a little wet behind the ears, but I can work with him.’ Mark earned his right to stay here full time.”

The transition to the AHL is tough, but Barberio said he’s more at ease as he’s making strides this season after playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the Moncton Wildcats last year.

"I thought I have adapted well to the speed and the size of the guys,” Barberio said. “With the guys so smart here, you really can’t take a night off. You have to rely on positioning, unlike juniors when you can take a puck off a guy and it’s a lot easier. Here the guys are a lot stronger. It’s important for me to get better positioning and stick on puck here.”

Cooper says the process of Barberio adapting to AHL speed and talent fresh from juniors is ongoing.

“Mark needs to work on his shot and his feet a little bit more,” Cooper said. “Sometimes he gets happy feet, which he just needs more experience to correct that. Mark Barberio is a NHL prospect, but that’s what the American League is for so he can develop and wait for his chance.”

While the Tampa Bay Lightning is headlined on the back end with young stud Victor Hedman (20), for the most part the Lightning has an aging defensive core. Randy Jones (29), Brett Clark (34), Pavel Kubina (33) and assistant captain Mattias Ohlund, who is 34, round out the current roster.

“It’s going to be a battle. You have veterans in Tampa, and eventually they will be gone, but right now he’s behind in the pecking order,” Cooper said. “I would suspect within the next two to three years in the American League, Mark Barberio should be a NHL player.”

Meanwhile, Barberio is working with skating coach Paul Lawson to build upon his stride and to increase stamina.

“Paul works on all different areas of skating like lengthening my stride and being more efficient to get more out of my stride, so you have more energy by the second and third periods,” he said. “It’s a work in progress; it’s not a sprint to become a good skater - it takes a while.”

Barberio’s offensive side helped lead the Wildcats to the Memorial Cup, finishing in the top three in points on his team in the playoffs with 22. The Wildcats eventually lost to the Windsor Spitfires, who went on to win back-to-back championships last May.

Rated in the top six among offensive defenseman in Norfolk, Barberio is seeing regular shifts, playing between 15-18 minutes a game, and seeing a bulk of time on special teams and the power play (Marc-Andre Bergeron, a power-play specialist, is mentoring him).

Barberio had 3 goals and 11 helpers with 16 PIM in his first 34 games as a rookie. Despite the relatively impressive stats for a first year player, Barberio said he won't lose sight of his main job duties.

“I’m still a defenseman, that’s my job. I don’t want to focus on scoring - I just want to make smart decisions on the ice — just play my game,” the 2008 sixth-round pick said.

“If points happen, they happen, but I don’t focus on scoring. It’s still my first year — I’m still learning.”

Cooper, however, suggested it’s very easy for players that have an offensive skill set to lose focus, especially in the Admirals up-tempo game.

“He’s go-go-go. We play that type of game — that’s great regular season hockey, but during the playoffs you have to be able to defend,” Cooper added. “He’s gotten better, but still needs to work on playing defense, which will develop more in time. He needs to continue to work on his shot and his offense in addition to working on his defense.”

The Montreal native is not a big physical player and Cooper is guiding his player to work on his core strength.

“The big thing with defensemen is developing core strength - I would recommend that Mark continue to build a strong core, which is key because you are doing so much pulling and pushing as defensemen. That’s the biggest key for the defensive end of things.”

Many dignitaries coming through Norfolk check on prospects - Hall of Famer and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman already met with players earlier in the season. Barberio was one of them.

“He (Yzerman) told me he likes the way I am playing," Barberio said. "He said he likes how I adapted to the game and to keep working on what I’ve been working on and to keep playing smart. It’s nice to get feedback from someone of his stature. So you take that information and run with it.”

The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Barberio knows his work is far from done as he inches towards his NHL goal.

“I just gotta make sure I keep working hard and spend time in the gym in the offseason,” Barberio said, leaning into his stick. “If the guys are strong here they are going to be stronger there (NHL). I’ll be working on my skating to become stronger and faster. You get what you deserve in the end. There is no time to slow down if I want to get to the next level.”