Name: Justin Barron
Team: Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
Stats: 34 games played, 4 goals, 15 assists, 19 points, 6 PIMs,-19 plus/minus rating
NHL Central Scouting ranking: 16th (North American skaters)
Comparable NHL players: Travis Sanheim / Noah Hanifin
Like his QMJHL compatriot Hendrix Lapierre, Justin Barron did not have the 2019-20 season that he had hoped for or that scouts anticipated.
At this time last year, both players were considered to be potential top-10 or top-15 picks in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. For Barron (a late 2001 birthday), he was coming off of a stellar 2018-19 campaign, where he helped Canada win gold at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and then played a key role as his Halifax Mooseheads team advanced to both the QMJHL Final and the Memorial Cup Final (Halifax hosted the CHL-wide tournament, but lost both finales to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies).
However, like Lapierre, Barron’s 2019-20 season was derailed by injury, leaving a fair amount of uncertainty about the defenseman’s NHL upside and where he is going to land in this year’s draft.
When the 6-foot-2, 187-pound Barron was diagnosed with a blood clot in December, it sparked a lot of concern. Blood clots can vary in severity and location, but the worst-case scenario can be career-ending: if a severe clot happens in a person’s leg, it can sometimes cause permanent damage to that leg, inhibiting normal use for the remainder of that person’s life. You don’t need to be a doctor to know that permanent leg damage could hinder one’s ability to skate, let alone potentially hinder the ability to live a healthy, full life off the ice.
Luckily for Barron, however, the clot wasn’t as severe as it could have been. From what information I have been able to gather, the clot appeared in his chest, not his leg. After three difficult months of rest, rehabilitation and recovery, the blueliner was medically cleared to play and returned to the ice on February 26, just a few short weeks before the remainder of the season was cancelled.
But after playing in just 34 games this season, and because of other reasons that I’ll get to shortly, trying to figure out where Barron should go in the draft is a challenging one.
First, let’s describe him as a player. If I only had one word to do so, I would use “rangy.” He’s a tall player with long limbs, and he’s also quite an athletic teenager who is able to generate a lot of speed and power out of his skating. Put the whole physical package together and he’s a defender who can easily cover a wide range of ice. He’s also not afraid to put those physical tools to his advantage, as he’ll often confidently skate the puck by himself through all three zones or join the offensive rush as a trailer. While there’s always risk when defenders jump up into the play regularly, Barron’s skating ability is good enough that he’s able to backtrack to help cover any rushes going the other direction.
Stylistically, Barron is a well-rounded, 200-foot defender who can do a bit of everything, but isn’t elite at anything. As a puck-carrier, his control, lateral movement and deception are all good, so he is capable of a nice rush or two per game, but nobody will ever mistake him for Quinn Hughes or Cale Makar. He’s able to find moderate scoring success manning the blue line in the offensive zone both at even-strength and on the power play, setting up chances with his puck movement or taking them himself with his shot, though he doesn’t project as a high-end offensive contributor or power play specialist. And while he puts in an honest effort defensively and can naturally cover so much territory, it’s hard to see him ever becoming a true shutdown defender or top penalty killer at the NHL level.
For all his physical tools, Barron is held back a little by his mental ones. Not only is his decision-making inconsistent, when it’s bad it can be really bad. Puck rushes will occasionally result in egregious turnovers and chances going the other direction, while defensive assignments can get missed because he is caught out of position or covering the wrong opponent.
I will say, however, that it’s worth considering the situation and environment he was in. The Mooseheads are, overall, one of the best organizations in the CHL when it comes to developing prospects and building powerful teams. For some reason or another, though, the team really underachieved in the early part of this past season, struggling to stay about .500 in the standings. Shortly after Barron left the lineup, the Mooseheads decided to pack in their season, shipping all three of their best forwards — Rafael Lavoie, Benoit-Olivier Groulx and Maxime Trepanier — to stronger teams in exchange for futures. Things cratered from there, and Halifax ended the season near the bottom of the league standings.
Why does this matter? Because when the team around you is sloppy and disjointed, it can be difficult to keep yourself sharp or get into good rhythms. This isn’t to deny that Barron has issues with his decision-making, because he does, but rather to illustrate that the degree of those problems might have been exacerbated by his situation. His play seemed to take a step backward from 2018-19 to 2019-20, and considering how strange that is for a top prospect at this age, it makes sense to wonder what else was going on. When Barron is at his best, which was previously seen at the Hlinka tournament and the QMJHL playoffs, he can be a real impact player and difference-maker.
So, just who is the real Justin Barron? Is it the defender who looked like a top-15 pick who could develop into an all-situations defenseman that can play on the top two pairs? Or was he the one from too many nights this past season, where he often didn’t look like he should be a first-rounder at all? That’s the big question now for NHL scouting departments, and it makes Barron one of the bigger wild cards for this draft. If a team is picking in the 20s and wants to swing on potential upside, Barron will be an interesting option.