With a record of 15-5-2 and a league-leading points percentage of .727 since late November, it goes without saying that virtually every member of the Toronto Maple Leafs has seen an uptick in performance under new bench boss Sheldon Keefe. But that description may not apply as aptly for anyone other than swashbuckling defenceman Tyson Barrie.
Acquired last summer as the centrepiece of a blockbuster trade that sent fan-favourite Nazem Kadri to the Colorado Avalanche, Barrie came to Toronto with sky-high expectations. Coming off back-to-back, near-60 point seasons, it was only natural that the 28-year-old defenceman was touted as the potential piece to take the Maple Leafs to the next level. Fans and members of the media alike were left to dream about how many points Barrie could rack up as part of what was supposed to be an elite Toronto offence. But, as is often the case in hockey, things don’t always go according to plan.
The Maple Leafs sputtered out of the gate under former head coach Mike Babcock to a 9-10-4 record while managing about three goals per game (13th in the NHL) over that span. And while the team struggled, so too did Barrie. Through those first 23 games, he mustered seven assists and failed to find the back of the net on 130 shot attempts.
In the 22 games since the coaching change, however, Barrie’s got his groove back. In poetic fashion, he scored his first goal of the season in Keefe’s first game behind the bench, and now with four goals and 16 points (a familiar 60-point pace) under Keefe, he’s looking a lot more like himself.
So what exactly has spurred on his metamorphosis? Can we be sure that this version of Barrie is here to stay?
Keefe Is Playing Barrie to His Strengths
The Babcock era already feels like a distant memory, but you may recall some of the ex-coach’s questionable decisions: promoting low percentage shots from the blue line, giving Cody Ceci top pairing minutes, and partnering Barrie with Jake Muzzin despite dreadful results. On top of that, Barrie, who could be described as a power play specialist, was used on the second unit, averaging just 2:13 of ice time per game on the man advantage — almost a minute and a half less than the 3:37 he averaged in Colorado over the past three seasons. All of that (and more) contributed to a down year in the standings for the Maple Leafs, and a disappointing showing on the score sheet for Barrie.
Enter coach Keefe: he’s incorporated a more fitting system that plays to the strengths of his offensively gifted blue line, allowing mobile players like Barrie, Morgan Rielly, and Justin Holl to roam with more freedom. He’s created all new pairings, with Barrie now finding success next to the like-minded Rielly, and he’s promoted Barrie to the top power-play unit where he belongs, simultaneously freeing Rielly to take more of the load at 5-on-5.
Not only has Barrie been significantly more productive under Keefe (his 16 points ties him for eighth in the NHL among defencemen since Nov. 21), but he’s also had a huge improvement in his on-ice impacts, boasting a near 10 percent jump in expected goals for while doubling his actual on-ice goals for. Put another way, Barrie was minus-11 under Babcock, outscored 24-12 at 5-on-5. Under Keefe, he’s plus-8 and has completely flipped the script, outscoring the opposition 24-12. Talk about a full 180.
While Barrie has seen just a marginal increase in power play time under Keefe, the stat is a bit of a misnomer. Under Babcock, the Maple Leafs were averaging 5:26 of power play time per game this season, but that number has dipped down to 4:38 under Keefe — which is actually last in the NHL. So while Barrie may be seeing a similar amount of power play ice time on the whole, he’s now receiving a greater piece of the pie.
Since the coaching change — and Barrie’s insertion into the top unit — the Maple Leafs’ power play has been scorching, converting on 33.33 percent of their opportunities. Unsurprisingly, that’s first in the league over that span. While Barrie has just four points on the man advantage during Keefe’s tenure, his ability to facilitate plays and open up space for playmakers like Mitch Marner and William Nylander has undoubtedly been a big part of the unit’s success.
Barrie Is Finally Settled in Toronto
One aspect of sport that can sometimes be taken for granted is the human side of things. We often expect players to perform in an almost robotic fashion, with little consideration of outside factors like personal hardships, family life, or in Barrie’s case, a move across the continent.
Like many players, Barrie spent the first several years of his NHL career with one team. After eight seasons, including three 50-plus-point campaigns, it’s clear that Barrie meshed well with his teammates on the Colorado Avalanche. When he was traded, though, his entire world was turned upside down: everything (and everyone) he knew since he was a 20-year-old rookie with the Avalanche was gone, and he would have to start all over in Toronto. Other than a whole new city, that meant new teammates, new systems, and a generally unfamiliar atmosphere. That’s enough to make anyone at least a little uncomfortable.
Fellow Maple Leaf Muzzin went through a similar experience last season as he was traded to Toronto after spending his first decade of professional hockey with the Los Angeles Kings organization.
“It takes a while, I think. Some guys are different than others,” Muzzin said in an interview with The Athletic (from ‘Monday Morning Leafs Report: Ice-time overload for Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews? Plus, Tyson Barrie emerges,’ The Athletic – 12/30/19). “All of this is new and different. It takes time. It took a little bit for me. The guys did a great job welcoming me, and I think we’ve done a great job welcoming Tyson.”
But even with the support of your new teammates, the process isn’t quick, or easy. According to Muzzin, it took him until towards the end of last season — about three months — to finally feel comfortable in Toronto. “I mean, you’re getting to know 25, 30 new people. That’s crazy. It’s different. Sometimes it takes a while.”
If we apply that same timeline to Barrie, things start to make a lot more sense: training camp began in September, the regular season started in October, and Barrie’s game picked up towards the end of November. That’s about a three month time frame — the same that Muzzin quoted as his initial adjustment period in Toronto.
It’s hard to say if Barrie will keep up his current level of play, though with his track record, you certainly wouldn’t bet against him. But if Barrie has found his comfort zone in Toronto, and if coach Keefe can continue to unleash his team’s offence, then the sky really is the limit for the former Mile High defenceman.
Stats from http://naturalstattrick.com/
Chris Faria is a contributor for The Hockey Writers with a focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs. A hockey player and self-proclaimed analytics nerd, his work aims to combine both stats and a deep knowledge of the game. He is currently pursuing a graduate diploma in sports journalism at Centennial College in Toronto.