Justin Barron's defensive game has improved playing for AHL's Rocket

“He’s much harder to play against and much better with his stick. He’s physical,” Laval head coach Jean-François Houle says about 22-year-old.

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Justin Barron remains convinced he can be a top-four defenceman in the NHL.

But now that he has spent more than two months in the minors playing for the Canadiens’ AHL affiliate in Laval, the time might soon be approaching where Barron will need to find a fit with another organization.

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“My mindset coming down was to prove to (the Canadiens) I should be the first guy to get called back up, whenever that may be,” Barron told the Gazette after a practice at Place Bell this week. “I feel like I’ve done everything in my power to put myself in a good position to be the next guy called up. That’s all I can do.

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“My focus has shifted to this team here,” he added. “I don’t think that has changed. I’m trying to do whatever I can to help this team make the playoffs, finish the year strong, go on a bit of a run and reset this summer. Next year’s a new year.”

Barron was sent to the Rocket in late January after playing 41 games for the Canadiens, producing six goals and 12 points along with being a modest minus-4. The thinking at that time was the 6-foot-2, 195-pounder needed work on his defensive game. Laval head coach Jean-François Houle said that aspect has improved.

“It has come around,” Houle said. “He’s much harder to play against and much better with his stick. He’s physical. His awareness is good defensively. I have nothing but good things to say about Justin Barron. He just has to figure a way to get his consistency up and find a chair at the NHL level. He just has to be patient. You never know who’s going to watch you. You can’t take a night off.

“He has to be hard all the time defensively; hard to play against. That’s the biggest thing he needs to improve — and he knows it.”

In 29 games with the Rocket, Barron has one goal, 10 points and is a minus-4. He has received plenty of ice time, utilized on the power play and penalty-kill. He has been paired of late with Olivier Galipeau, more of a defensive player, which allows Barron to take advantage of his offensive skills and skating ability.

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“I feel like my game’s in a better spot than it was,” said Barron, a former first-round (25th overall) Colorado draft choice in 2020 who traded to the Canadiens (along with a second-round pick this year) in March 2022 for Artturi Lehkonen. “Defensively, I’ve certainly tightened up some aspects. My stick details have gotten a lot better. I think I’ve been better at killing pucks in the defensive zone and been more physical. I feel more confident defensively.”

The Canadiens conducted a similar move earlier this season with defenceman Arber Xhekaj, sending him to Laval through December and January for 17 games. Xhekaj has improved since returning to the NHL while being teamed with David Savard.

But this late in the season, Barron will complete the year in Laval. While still only 22, the Canadiens are loaded with young defencemen. Logan Mailloux and David Reinbacher, both former first-round draft choices with the Rocket, will certainly soon warrant an NHL look as well, potentially leaving Barron on the outside looking in.

“Wherever you go every organization is going to have that internal competition,” Barron said. “There’s a lot of young talent here. There’s always going to be that internal battle. I’ve played (87) games in the NHL. I know what I can do. For me, it’s taking that next step in my game defensively, trying to stick up there full-time.”

Laval (31-27-8) holds the fifth and final playoff spot in the North Division, one point ahead of Utica and two points up on Belleville, although both teams hold games in hand. The Rocket has six games remaining, beginning Friday night at home against Syracuse followed by Saturday afternoon against Springfield. The season probably will come down to the final two games against the Senators, April 19-20.

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