Maple Leafs’ New Coach Getting the Best Out of Tyson Barrie

There are a number of expressions one might use to describe new Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe’s magical impact on Tyson Barrie, who struggled so far this season under former coach Mike Babcock. Keefe pulls the bunny from that hat or extracts a coin from behind a child’s ear.

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But, perhaps the one I like best is that Keefe has rubbed the lamp and the genie that is Barrie has emerged. But, no matter what’s happened, Keefe has been magic for Barrie’s game. And, in response, Barrie has been magic to the Maple Leafs’ won-lost record.

Keefe’s Immediate Impact

The Toronto Maple Leafs have now won two straight games under their new head coach. And, honestly, they were tough games to win. Both were on the road against difficult teams.

Sheldon Keefe
Nov 21, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe looks on against the Arizona Coyotes during the third period at Gila River Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

First, the team beat the Arizona Coyotes 3-1, who are now sitting second in the Pacific Division under the upstart Edmonton Oilers. Then, they beat the Colorado Avalanche on their home ice by a score of 5-3. The Avalanche, even with the loss, own a 13-8-2 record and boast one of the NHL’s best players in Nathan MacKinnon. Those two road wins weren’t easy.

The Re-Emergence of Barrie

As a Maple Leafs fan and commentator, it was exciting for me to see the team finally win and play well. The players worked and were rewarded. Perhaps, it was most exciting to see the complete turn-around in former Avalanche star defenseman Barrie who, after being blanked for 23 games, scored a goal in games 24 and 25. He seems like a new player.

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Given that Barrie is playing on the last year of his contract and shooting for a nice pay raise if he continues the kind of scoring he’d reached during his last two seasons with the Avalanche – close to 60 points per season – there’s reason he should wake up excited to be employed in the role Keefe has given him.

Seriously, until the last two games, what NHL player anywhere was losing more value on next season’s contract than the right-shot defenseman? Given his deployment by Babcock – on the second unit with little power-play time, which has been his forte – Barrie was struggling. He had to be discouraged.

Keefe Changed Barrie’s Fortunes

Keefe literally and immediately changed Barrie’s fortunes, and the upside on the team has been obvious. With increased power-play opportunities and freedom on offense, it’s almost like the Zamboni flooded the rink with new ice for Barrie.

Toronto Maple Leafs Ilya Mikheyev Tyson Barrie Trevor Moore
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Ilya Mikheyev celebrates his first NHL career goal with teammates Tyson Barrie and Trevor Moore (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Barrie got his first goal of the season against the Coyotes on Thursday and he then scored two points against his former team on Saturday evening. First, he had an assist on Auston Matthews’ goal and then scored a power-play goal of his own in the 5-3 win.

Keefe put Barrie back into his wheelhouse. He made him the quarterback of the team’s new-look power play, not by replacing Morgan Rielly but by playing them together. Now, the Maple Leafs unit employs William Nylander, Matthews, John Tavares, Rielly, and Barrie on the point. The move also encourages Nylander, who himself experienced – in my mind – too much of Babcock’s tough love.

Related: Tyson Barrie Content to Fly Under the Radar for Now with Maple Leafs

During the Avalanche game, the team had two chances with the man advantage and scored once. That goal came when Barrie pinched down from the blue line and threw the puck top-shelf from one knee. It was simply unleashing the old magic.

Barrie Receives a Warm Welcome in Colorado

It was also good to see Barrie get such a nice welcome back to Colorado when the Colorado fans watched a video tribute to his career with the team. He had to feel as good about that welcome as he’s finally feeling comfortable with his new role on the team. What a fortunate circumstance that Barrie’s success happens simultaneously as he visits his former home ice.

Tyson Barrie’s Welcome Back to Denver

All this happens after a week when there were “unconfirmed rumors” about Barrie being traded or hoping to be traded. In a recent post, Jim Parsons reported Elliotte Friedman’s note that the Vancouver Canucks had been thought to be after Barrie as part of a trade.

However, I have to think the new change in deployment for Barrie will squash such rumors pretty quickly. That’s because Barrie’s been on a roll for the past two games. Under new coach Keefe’s on-ice re-organization, Barrie seems to have more confidence in his offensive ability and more freedom to engage that offense. The old magic is back.

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As the first power-play unit quarterback, Barrie has scored a goal in each of his last two games. Against the Avalanche, he also had an assist for his first multi-point outing since Oct. 5, and he has a four-game point streak.

Finally, Barrie’s Promise Is Being Shown

The 28-year-old Barrie was brought on board to provide more offense, and that promise is starting to show. He now has more responsibility in moving the puck, starting the breakout, and joining the rush. And, he’s run with the opportunity.

There’s no doubt Keefe has had an impact on his players. Barrie certainly has benefited. And, although this is another post sometime in the future, the coaching change also has brought Russian rookie Ilya Mikheyev greater opportunity.

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Right now, Barrie looks free and easy on the ice. Should he continue to be given more ice time and creative freedom to impact the game, watch out. Given his career track record, there’s no reason to believe Barrie’s scoring won’t continue to improve under Keefe’s more-open offense.

As an aside, to suggest the difference between how Keefe and Babcock think, Nick Shore got the start because he’s from the Denver area. Keefe wanted to get him in the lineup because “he’s obviously got connections” and felt it was “important to get him in the lineup.” 

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I couldn’t help but contrast that with Babcock’s treatment of Jason Spezza during the regular-season home opener against the Ottawa Senators. I didn’t think I would like Keefe as much as I do. It’s a different team.