Mark Barberio was one of the hidden gems of last year's free agent crop. At the time, when Marc Bergevin signed him to a one-year contract, the move was questioned because the team already had a logjam on the left side that prevented Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu from getting regular minutes. The move was regarded as a low-risk, high-reward move, but it now appears to be a steal.
Barberio is a product of the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he was left unqualified by them last season, freeing him up to sign with the Montreal Canadiens. Because he is under the age of 27 and has fewer than seven accrued seasons, he is a restricted free-agent again this off-season, meaning the Canadiens only have to qualify him to retain his rights.
While Barberio has been in the NHL for three seasons, he has never played over 52 games in any one. This is not indicative of his talent, though. If it was not for the fear of losing Jarred Tinordi on waivers, it is likely that Barberio would have started the year with the Habs. Instead, he played 26 games with the St. John's IceCaps before being called up when the Canadiens defence suffered a slew of injuries near the end of December. He rarely missed a game after that call-up.
Barberio rarely played any place other than the third pairing, but he excelled in that role. When he was on the ice, the Canadiens controlled 53.5% of all even-strength shot attempts. He also posed 53.2% Scoring Chances For, and commanded a sparkling 57.5% of high-danger chances.
For someone who wasn't part of the opening night lineup, he fared extremely well in the end. Although not high scoring (he contributed just two goals and eight assists in 30 games this season), he proved to be good at getting the puck up the ice and into the opposing end, while also being capable of helping drive play for the Canadiens.
Because of the low offensive totals, he is likely to be able to be signed to a value contract this summer. For that reason alone, it was surprising that the Lightning let Barberio go for nothing as a restricted asset. There should be little hesitation on Bergevin's part to re-sign Barberio to a new deal.
What can be expected of Barberio next season? Hopefully more of the same, steady play on the third or even second pair. He might be better beside Jeff Petry than Alexei Emelin is, but it may make for a stronger defence overall if Barberio plays on the third pairing, allowing Petry to lead the second duo and Subban the first.
While that may not seem like optimal deployment, it allows for a puck-mover on each pair, and therefore better distributed minutes without forcing just four players to shoulder the majority of the defensive load. Barberio proved to be a capable defender for the Habs in 2015-16, and should get entrusted with more duties if he's with the team come October.