At the start of the 2019-20 hockey season, it appeared that the title of top draft-eligible defenceman was going to be contested by two players in the Canadian Hockey League: Jamie Drysdale and Justin Barron. In Bob McKenzie’s pre-season draft rankings, published in September of 2019, NHL scouts had ranked Drysdale as the eighth-best prospect, and Barron the 10th.
Drysdale’s play in his draft year not only justified those initial projections, but exceeded them, He increased his goal and assist totals with the Erie Otters despite a shortened season, and showed he had room to grow and flesh out his skill set. Barron, on the other hand, was unable to strengthen his case.
Birthplace: Halifax, Nova Scotia
Date of birth: November 15, 2001
Weight: 198 lbs.
Draft-Year Team: Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
The Haligonian was only able to play about half of the games for his hometown team, forced to the sidelines by a blood-clot issue. His point totals were actually a step down from what he’d produced in his draft-minus-one campaign.
With added scrutiny of his game in the last action before the NHL Draft, scouts began to question how much of an offensive impact he’d be able to have at the top level. A progression is expected for any player projected to go in the opening round, and especially one in the top 10, but with less of a supporting cast to work with, that leap never happened. That alone allowed several promising forwards to overtake him in the rankings as the year went on.
There were still things to like about his offensive game. First and foremost, he’s a mobile blue-liner, so when he joins the rush he can just skate past recovering players to get to the net. He has a low shot from the point that can be easily tipped, and that’s how he got most of his points.
It clearly wasn’t an overly dangerous shot, as he had just four goals on the year. Part of that is some slow reactions when he has the puck, often taking too long to make his play and having the lanes close just as he’s ready to fire. The same is true of his playmaking, as he had trouble moving the puck quickly to teammates, or even finding them if they were open because of some pass-accuracy issues.
Elite Prospects: #70
Future Considerations: #38
Hockey Prospect: #46
McKeen’s Hockey: #54
NHL Central Scouting: #16 (North American skaters)
At the opposite end of the ice, his defensive play which has always served as the basis of his game remained intact. He denied forwards at the blue line, threw his body around, and used an active stick to stop plays in front of the net. There are few players in his class better at defending against forwards carrying the puck.
There are better defencemen at keeping tabs on players who don’t have possession, and that became more apparent this season. Some issues with awareness let players simply skate around him in his own zone, and not even his quickness could help him recover.
It didn’t help his case that two similar blue-liners — Kaiden Guhle and Braden Schneider — showed fewer weaknesses in their games. Both of those WHLers surpassed Barron this season. Jake Sanderson, a better skater than all of them, raced past all of those peers to currently slot around the 10th position Barron originally occupied to start the year.
In the not too distant past, just having great mobility would have been enough to earn a high selection. As the game transitioned from a tight-checking style to more of an offensive flow, the league needed defencemen who could keep up. Now that most players in the league can be classified as mobile, the next transition is in the speed of processing the game. There’s very little time to make decisions when an opponent can be on top of you in a split-second, so you need to make the right one in an instant. In the 2020 class, a handful of players proved they can do that better than Barron, and that has some scouts and analysts questioning just how valuable the Mooseheads defenceman’s game will be.
Originally projected as a top-four option with a good overall game, some concerns with consistency and his ability to keep up in the modern game peg Barron more as a third-pairing option. He could still be a significant part of an NHL team, but probably not be deployed against the top players in the league, and his drop in the rankings reflects that thinking. Bob McKenzie’s end-of-year survey of NHL scouts revealed that many still have him in quite high regard, so a first-round selection is far from out of the question, but there will need to be some significant improvements in Barron’s game to live up to that positioning.