Montreal Canadiens defenceman Justin Barron had to swallow a tough pill when he was sent down to the AHL to start the season, but he’s making the most of it, and it’s paying off.
Barron is turning heads in Laval as of late, and he credits much of his success to the development he’s been able to do in the AHL.
Having been acquired by the Montreal Canadiens in a 2022 NHL Trade Deadline move that saw Arturri Lehkonen head over to Denver in exchange for Barron, there were a lot of expectations on the young man’s shoulders.
It’s been a good transition for him, the 21-year-old, who took the experience he gained in the Colorado Avalanche organization, especially their AHL affiliate Colorado Eagles, to help him hit the ground running with the Laval Rocket.
“I enjoyed my time in Colorado, but obviously with the team they had last year. It was pretty hard to get some opportunities to play,” said Barron about his situation last season. “I was trying to find my identity as a player, being that two-way guy while being good in all areas of the ice. Last year there were some times that I would have one or two good games, and then, you know, maybe one or two not-so-good games. And it’s definitely different, like I said, the transition to pro hockey takes some getting used to. I feel more comfortable now.”
Looking back at his former team fondly and remembering the adversity and lessons he picked up playing under Eagles Head Coach Greg Cronin, he knew there’d be more bumps in the road.
Turning Disappointment Into Motivation
Spending the summer training with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, and Brad Marchand, among many more, Barron prepared himself physically for what was to come.
“I knew I needed to have a good summer, and there were obviously roster spots open coming into training camp this year,” said Barron about his mindset. “And I think I put my best foot forward, but there was maybe a game or two that I’d like to have back.”
Barron acknowledged that he wasn’t necessarily thrilled about heading back to the Rocket, as his goal was to stick in the NHL, but he quickly got back on his horse and went to work.
“At the end of the day, it was obviously disappointing not to stick with them out of camp,” said Barron. ” But, since coming to Laval, I’ve been playing lots of power play; we have some really good guys. I’ve been trying to be more of a shooter and more of a threat and just trying to pick my spots better and be a little bit more involved offensively, not only just be a passing threat.”
He’s certainly developed his offensive game without question, as Barron currently sits third in the AHL with seven goals for a defenceman, while also having nine assists for 16 points in just 25 games this year.
— Rocket de Laval (@RocketLaval) December 17, 2022
Finding His Identity
One of the big things Barron focused on when talking about his time with the Avalanche was that he wasn’t able to develop his own on-ice identity as a player.
For Barron, it was about honing his skills and improving in areas that would help him hold down specific roles at the next level, like a power play quarterback or even-strength, minute-munching defenceman.
Having that in the back of his mind, Barron was immediately supported by the Montreal Canadiens’ developmental staff and Laval Rocket coaches in his quest to further refine his game.
“I’ve been working a lot with Kelly Buchberger here, our defence coach. He’s been good, and we’ve been doing lots of video,” said Barron about the work he’s doing in Laval. “Then Adam Nicholas as well. He watches all the games, and he’s been down a little while a little bit as well working with our whole team. So it’s been good. There’s been lots of feedback and it’s been great working with them.”
Barron recounted the many times he and Nicholas looked over some tape and worked on the finer details of his game, feedback that other prospects like Sean Farrell and Owen Beck have also credited Nicholas for helping them with in developmental sessions.
“It’s been a lot of smaller details, said Barron about the subtle skills he’s been working on, “Stick positioning, gap control, closing our guys in the corner; just I guess some subtle things like that. You need to be a good defensive player in the NHL.”
He credits the great work from the Canadien’s developmental staff in not only helping him find his game, but also his identity as a player.
“I think it’s been really helpful and kind of finding my identity as a player. I think my 2-way game has gotten much better,” said Barron about what he believes his true role is on the ice, “I’ve been able to help contribute offensively, like improving my decision-making and knowing when to pick my moments to jump in offensively.”
But Barron isn’t done just yet. He understands he still has some work to do, most notably in continuing to shore up his defensive game, but also using his physical gifts, being 6’2 and over 200lbs, to play a little meaner in his own zone.
“Another part of it is, I’m a pretty big guy, and I’ve been trying to improve my physicality a little bit,” said Barron regarding his desire to get meaner. “Play with some more bite in my game. So yeah, I think that’s coming along, too. I still need to take that to another level, I think. But yeah, just being harder to play against in the D zone.”
Barron continues to look like the top defenceman for the Laval Rocket this season and his responsibilities continue to grow. His progress is a testament to the change in developmental approach that Montreal Canadiens GM Kent Hughes has brought in, and, if Barron has his way, it’s like to pay for them in 2023.
Justin Barron with a great feed to Brandon Gignac and Lucas Condotta finishes off the rebound.
3-1 Laval! pic.twitter.com/iujafoltSt
— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 18, 2022