Riley Barber stood at a crossroads following his sophomore season at Miami University [Ohio]. At 20 years old, should he turn pro and take a shot at playing for the Capitals next season?
Or, should he return for a third season with the RedHawks, who finished a disappointing 15-20-3 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005?
“We had a very disappointing year as a program and as a team,” Barber said last week during the Caps’ development camp. “We know we have a lot of good guys in the locker room.
“I’m there to win a championship and right now I’m going back for another year and try to do our best next year to get that national championship we’re looking for.”
There may have been other factors in Barber’s decision, like the Capitals’ depth at right wing, where Alex Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Tom Wilson present formidable obstacles for an offensive-minded right wing who has netted 34 goals in 78 games at Miami. And Barber said earning another 30 credits toward a degree in Management and Leadership was important to him.
Barber said Capitals director of player development Steve Richmond put very little pressure on him to come to his decision. But when it came right down to it, atoning for a losing season was the one thing that mattered most to Barber.
“There’s a lot of unfinished business that I have at Miami that I definitely want to take care of,” he said. “That’s the main thing that brought me back.”
RedHawks head coach Enrico Blasi said he thought Barber made a “very mature” decision that took “a lot of courage.” Barber’s teammates, Austin Czarnik and Blake Coleman, also committed to playing at least one more season at Miami.
“The culture that we’ve tried to create here at Miami is one of relationships and family and helping these individuals mature and grow as individuals and I think its not far off the philosophy coach [Barry] Trotz there in Washington,” Blasi said Monday. “I think we’re very similar in our approach.
“Barry talked about it [last week], about making sure they don’t move people along too quickly and Riley is getting very close to being ready mentally, physically and emotionally to make that jump. I think you can tell Washington is getting a pretty special player down the road.”
Drafted by the Caps in the sixth round [167th overall] of the 2012 NHL draft, Barber recorded a career-high 19 goals and 25 assists in 38 games for the RedHawks last season. But perhaps his biggest accomplishment came in the World Junior Championships, when he captained Team USA to the quarterfinals, where the Americans lost to Russia. Barber recorded four goals in five games in the tournament, held in Sweden.
“It was unbelievable,” Barber said, “to be recognized by your teammates as somebody they look up to and look for leadership in that kind of tournament. I was really taken back by it and humbled by it. For them to think of me that way was an honor.”
Barber said wearing the “C” carried the added responsibilities of making sure all of his teammates were just as ready to play as he was.
Blasi, who has seen former RedHawks Dan Boyle, Andy Greene, Alec Martinez and Reilly Smith achieve success in the NHL, said he has seen Barber develop those leadership qualities during his two years in Miami’s program and is excited to have him back for a third.
“Riley is at a point right now where he can really take that next step in his development,” said Blasi, who used Barber on the power play and penalty kill and primarily on the right side. “He can score goals, he has a knack for that. To play at the next level, the biggest thing is you have to be consistently good every day and that takes all three of those parts – mental, physical and emotional. And those are the things we will continue to work on.”
Barber was impressive in the Caps’ scrimmage games while playing on a line with center Chandler Stephenson and left wing Nathan Walker, each of whom are expected to begin the season in Hershey, and he said that with some tweaking of his game he should be knocking on the Caps’ door next summer.
“If you want to play in the NHL you have to be NHL speed and that’s the main thing I’m working on,” he said, “getting those first three steps as quick as possible, and working in the gym to get better conditioned. You can always get faster and quicker.”