Photo credit: @JessieMartin
The Washington Capitals had a few pleasant surprises from their prospects last year. Tom Wilson showed the kind of offensive output everyone had hoped for. Connor Carrick displayed NHL potential. Garrett Mitchell proved he’s NHL-ready in Hershey. But the “Performance Way Over Expectations” award this year goes to Riley Barber, who had a tremendous rookie year at Miami University. Barber was named CCHA Freshman of the Year and played on the top line during the USA’s surprising gold medal win at World Juniors.
A player who wasn’t drafted until the sixth round has somehow turned into a dominant college hockey player.
“I got passed up in the NHL Draft and hadn’t had a great year at the [US National Team Development] Program and didn’t get a lot of opportunity, but I think it was just a down year for me at the program,” Barber explained to RMNB’s Ian Oland on the final day of Development Camp. “I knew there are a lot years left, so no matter where I get drafted or what happens, this is the next year so I just kind of focused getting better in my game in the summer and just carrying it into the next year.”
Barber’s season was so tumultuous that he didn’t even attend the draft held in Pittsburgh. He watched the ceremony live at home with his parents. For a kid who grew up a Penguins fan, that was a concession. “My aunt was wishing I would’ve gotten picked by the Penguins, and I kinda did at the time too,” Barber said. “But to go to a great organization like this– there’s a reason why [Pens] fans were booing [the Caps organization] that day: because they’re really good.”
The highlight in his standout freshman year for Barber was, of course, the World Junior Championships in Russia. In seven games, he scored three goals and added three assists. When asked about that experience, he said, “When you’re on a national stage– a truly national stage– you’re playing in front of your home country and everybody’s watching and at that point you go, ‘Wow, this is something really special.’” Barber continued, “When I got home, I was watching some of the games again on DVR and I was just thinking about the fact that there only were three teams to ever win it for the US and to play great teams like Canada– especially with all the great players they have on their team– and beat them, I know that’s something the guys on the team won’t ever forget.”
Barber’s performance on the big stage has led to grander expectations. The 19-year-old winger’s stock rose rapidly as the year continued, and now he thinks he’s earned trust from the organization. “They try not to tell me too much,” Barber said. “This is a great organization and George McPhee and Adam Oates and Steve Richmond are gonna tell me when I can and when I can’t come up. I really respect their decision, and I love hearing from them, and I try not to look too far into [the future] because you still have got to show it on the ice.”
Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee was a bit more revealing about the prospect to The Washington Post. “He seems to be better than last year and last year was better than before we drafted him,” McPhee said. “He’s heavier and he’s a real opportunist. He’s real smart away from the puck, and then smart when he gets the puck and can score goals. We like to have guys like that. He’s got a chance to be a national leaguer.”
Yet there are still many things the Livonia, Michigan native has to work on. “I need faster acceleration and more speed,” Barber replied, when asked how he’s going to go to the next level in his game. “You can always work on your speed. That’s what gets you the opportunities to score. If you don’t have good feet, you don’t get to the space to score so I’m just gonna keep working on my skating, keep working on my quickness, and definitely try and make my shot harder.”
And that’s despite the fact that skating is in his genes. Riley’s father, Don, also a college hockey player, played in 115 NHL games. His mother, Stacy, was a figure skating coach.
Barber’s complete game is uncommon for NCAA freshmen who often face competition four or five years older than they are. Riley was certainly one of the best stories in the Caps up-and-down season, and now his sophomore season will be crucial. Still eligible for the World Juniors this year, Barber needs to prove that last season was more than a flash in the pan.