ANAHEIM - It almost seemed like Tom Renney ended every pre-game pep talk or post-practice meeting with the same four words: “I hate you, Barker.”
OK, hate is a strong word, and it’s not Barker the person he appears to have a problem with, but when a head coach scratches a veteran for 15-straight games, it’s no stretch to suggest he doesn’t like something about the player.
And Barker, no surprise, isn’t in love with the situation, either. Who would, being scratched so many times people think you have a part-time job washing cats?
“I’d love to play every game, right, so in that sense, for sure I’m not as happy as I could be,” he said a few hours before his first game since Feb. 29, which was only made possible by injuries to Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry and Theo Peckham.
“I worked extremely hard to come back and play, not to come back and not play. It’s disappointing for sure but at the same time I understand how things work.”
Actually, he doesn’t. Barker worked like mad to come back early from ankle surgery, only to see his comeback shut down before it even started. He played four games, got scratched, played three games, sat for three, played two games and sat for 15 in a row.
He wasn’t good in those nine appearances, looking lethargic and detached at times, but the leash was very short and the door to redemption locked shut in a hurry for someone coming back from major surgery.
“That’s the way I feel,” he said. “After coming off a big injury like that, the same type of injury that basically kept Whitter (Ryan Whitney) out for almost a year, I come back a month early and it was tough getting in that flow.
“I wanted to play well right away but it’s not the reality sometimes. I’m not making the calls. You keep working hard and waiting for that chance, and that chance happened to be a long time.”
Renney says it was nothing personal, just a numbers game; Barker wasn’t one of the six best defencemen. With Barker a step behind and Jeff Petry pulling away, there wasn’t room.
“In all likelihood, going into the year, you would have thought that he would be going back down and opening that door for Barks to play, but Jeff being as good as he was we knew we couldn’t do that,” said Renney. “When you add to that that Barks was coming off a serious injury that took him out of a lot of hockey — he came into a situation where this team was up and running while he was back in the mode of August.
“It took a long time for him to come around, and as other people solidified their spot on the team, it made it more difficult for Barks to get in.”
So, instead of re-establishing himself as a top-four defenceman after being bought out by the Minnesota Wild, Barker loses even more ground this season.
Who knows what his value will be when the Oilers let him go this summer.
“It’s hard when you think to yourself, I’ve got three games to kind of nail down my career here,” said Renney. “That’s heavy lifting, but that’s pro sports, you have to deal with that.”
It’s not much, but it’s all he’s got — shake off 15 games of rust and try to make an impression.
“You can practice and work out all you want but it’s not quite the same (as playing),” he said, “I just kept working hard and hopefully in these last games I can show that.”
Follow me on TWITTER.com/SUN_TYCHKOWSKI