Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Barbashev proving he belongs in the NHL

Center providing much-needed relief at center, got proper growth from 
current staff in AHL after challenging first season with Chicago Wolves

ST. LOUIS -- Ivan Barbashev claimed he was nervous. Blues coach Mike Yeo thought he fit in immediately.

No matter how one dissects it, the Blues have found out rather quickly something they had been hoping for since the day they drafted Barbashev with the 33rd pick in the 2014 NHL Draft: he's a keeper, and the Blues are going to keep him, it looks like, in the NHL and allow the 21-year-old center iceman to grow.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues center Ivan Barbashev (49) celebrates after scoring against Calgary
on Saturday. Barbashev has earned his way to the NHL since his recall.

Barbashev, the pick the Blues acquired on July 13, 2013 along with Magnus Paajarvi that sent David Perron to the Edmonton Oilers, was called up from the Chicago Wolves and made his NHL debut on Jan. 26 in Minnesota, and admittedly and naturally, it was an adjustment.

"The first eight games was kind of hard, I was still nervous before every game," Barbashev said. "...  My first couple games, I was like really cautious. I was trying to not to make any mistakes and stuff like that. But right now, I'm still doing the same things, I'm trying to be careful because it's the NHL. Every mistake could be bad, but I'm trying to play smart, specially for my line."

The numbers may not jump off the stat page, but Barbashev's four goals and four assists through 23 NHL games are more than just the goals and assists. He's supplying more than depth at a center position that's been hurting because of injury to some key veterans, namely top-line center Paul Stastny as of late.

Nobody knew what to expect from Barbashev after coach Mike Yeo said "I didn't think his camp was very good, so I didn't really know what to expect."

But Barbashev, after putting up 19 goals and 18 assists in 46 games with the Chicago Wolves this season, came in ready to compete for a job, and has won over the staff.

"I thought that he fit in right from the get-go," Yeo said of Barbashev. "He earned our trust. I had heard he was playing well. We gave him the opportunity and he took full advantage of it. I think what's more impressive from me is not that he came in without nerves, I think that's quite often the case with a lot of young players, but what's more impressive to me is quite often with these guys, one, two, three weeks into it, all of the sudden, they reach their water level. He is showing no signs. He's showing that actually he's playing better hockey this time of the year in these difficult games when things get ramped up and he can have a bad shift, he can have a game that's not his best and he can bounce back from that."

Barbashev, who said he gained 16 pounds to put him at his current weight of 196 to go with his 6-foot-0 frame, said it's been a different lifestyle of eating at the NHL level, one that includes a protein-rich cache of foods.

"The foods I eat two years before and right now, it's completely different," he said. "That's probably why I gain some weight. It's a really good thing. Protein and I've been working out all summer."

But Barbashev joked, "They've been helping us with the ice cream before bed."

After a successful three-year win with the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL where he put up 88 goals and 137 assists in 173 regular season games, Barbashev's AHL career with the Wolves got off to a rough start. 

He finished with 10 goals and 18 assists in 65 games in the 2015-16 season and found life challenging. But he took the high road and continued to work at his craft.

"It was frustrating to start, because after they put me on the fourth line, I just said, 'whatever, I'm going to keep working hard,'" Barbashev said of the coaching regime of John Anderson, now an assistant with the Minnesota Wild. "I've talked to a lot of people, especially my family, all my friends who play professional, my brother (Sergei) who is in KHL for five years. He's been playing on the fourth and third line for four years. He knows how it is. He told me just 'don't worry, keep working hard every day, be the last guy on the ice and be always in the gym and work hard and you'll see what happens.'"

Blues management felt Barbashev wasn't being used in proper situations and his growth was being paused because of it, so enter a new coaching staff this season that includes coach Craig Berube and assistants Darryl Sydor and Daniel Tkazcuk.

"They made a big difference," Barbashev said. "All of those coaches, they've been working on me the whole year in Chicago. Thanks to them, they did a helluva job. Huge difference to be honest since last year. My game changed a lot. Right now, I'm playing like I used to play in juniors. That's probably why I had success at this level. 

"The biggest change is about the organization since last year and this year. This year, they told me before season I'm going to have more minutes in Chicago. It really happened. I had more minutes. I was on the ice in real important times of the game with a minute left or something. That's how we learned because the AHL is a professional league, too, and that was relief for me that I spent one and a half years in Chicago. It really helped me, but now I'm trying to make the team for next year. I'm just trying to improve myself."

And Barbashev is proving himself with his poise with the puck, his ability to protect it from the big, brawny players trying to out-muscle him at the point of contact, and Barbashev continues to dazzle and impress Blues fans with his stick-handling abilities and persistent play under pressure.

"He's competitive," Yeo said. "You always talk about hockey strength and you see guys go into the corner and find a way to come out with it. ... I know that he goes into the corner and he comes out with the puck. In his body checks and his counter checks, he usually comes out on top."

"I'm getting more comfortable to be honest," Barbashev said. "... Now, I'm just going in every game, I'm feeling comfortable, I'm trying to create some offense right now. I'm just trying to go out there and do my job.

"I feel like with this team, I'm just getting comfortable and comfortable. The guys are always helping me out, same as coaches always telling me 'great job' and stuff like that. It just feels like I'm more comfortable. Hopefully it's going to go higher."

Barbashev played a career-high 15 minutes of ice time against Arizona, the Blues' opponent Wednesday again to begin a two-game trip. He didn't score, but since the loss of Stastny and no apparent timetable of his return, Barbashev has given the Blues a bonafide center to play between fellow young forwards Nail Yakupov and Zach Sanford, and perhaps Dmitrij Jaskin, who Barbashev played with at Moncton, when Jaskin returns from an upper-body injury.

"The first game together was a little tough because we didn't have much chemistry between us, but now, I know where 'Sandy' and 'Yak' will be on the ice," Barbashev said. "If I'm going to put the puck behind the net with no look, I know somebody will be there. It's kind of made my game easier."

Yeo won't put a ceiling on what Barbashev can reach with the Blues and his NHL career, but if he continues to trend in the right direction and is able to handle the responsibilities the coaching staff puts on him, Barbashev can certainly be a staple on this team for years to come.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues center Ivan Barbashev (right), here battling with a pair of Calgary
players, scored his first NHL goal Feb. 7 against Ottawa.

"I never really like to put a ceiling on young players," Yeo said. "So for us, we'll just keep trying to push him. Obviously he's got great tools. I think that he's showing he's playing a mature game, but there's certain parts of his game that with us coaches, we have to try to grow in terms of his play without the puck, but we really have to try and challenge him with the puck and see what he can grow into, give him the opportunity to make plays, teach when it's time to teach, but give him the opportunity show us what he can do."

Which is fine with Barbashev, who is having the time of his life.

"I wasn't sure if I would be able to play at this level," said Barbashev, whose first NHL goal came Feb. 7 against the Ottawa Senators in a 6-0 victory. "But if you work hard, you're going to be good at this level. That's what I did my first eight games, but I'm still working hard and right now, it just feels good to be here.

"Oh my God! It's a lot of fun!"

* NOTES -- The Blues signed Providence College defenseman Jake Walman to a three-year entry-level contract on Tuesday.

Walman, 21, is a third-round selection by the Blues in the 2014 NHL Draft who completed his collegiate season at Providence recently with seven goals and 18 assists in 39 games. 

The 6-0, 193-pound Toronto native, Walman spent three seasons at Providence and was named a Hockey East first-team all-star in each of the past two seasons.

Walman will immediately report to the Wolves, joining 2016 first-round pick Tage Thompson.

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