Of all the players the Toronto Maple Leafs acquired this past off-season, I was most thrilled to witness Tyson Barrie become (one of) their best defencemen. I, and most of us were shocked with what we observed.
Let’s begin with his inaugural game in a Maple Leafs uniform; two assists. “Okay, he’s off to a great start.” Two games later, Barrie does it again; two more assists. “Alright, I didn’t think he’d be this good!”
While fans were ecstatic about the player they thought would bring balance to the defence core, we didn’t expect the devastating future ahead. After tallying four assists in his first three games, Barrie was held to just one point in his next 18 and still, he was without a goal.
That was until news surfaced about there being a possible coaching change coming. In the two final games under Babcock, the 28-year-old tallied an assist in each appearance.
And then the inevitable happened:
Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas told Mike Babcock he was fired today. Shanahan flew to Arizona from Toronto today to be there. It was Shanahan, of course, who hired Babcock.
— Bobby Margarita (@TSNBobMcKenzie) November 20, 2019
And as we know it, this changed Barrie’s performance for the rest of the season.
He began scoring (his first goal as a Maple Leaf was in Sheldon Keefe’s first game as head coach) and he even started playing some good hockey.
When the 28-year-old was acquired, his specialties were being one of the league’s most coveted offensive defenceman, and being a force on the power play.
After a few games with Keefe as head coach, Barrie was promoted to the first power play unit (where most thought he should’ve been to start the season). Being in a position he’s used to, like in Colorado, Barrie was expected to succeed in this role.
The power play changed drastically when Keefe was introduced (and also possibly from Paul McFarland being given more freedom). From the end of Babcock’s tenure, to the conclusion of the season, the Maple Leafs had the second best power play in the NHL (26.5%), only behind the Edmonton Oilers (28.0%).
Barrie was on the unit for almost that entire stint, but numbers suggest that he may not have been the best quarterback on the team.
Fans were getting tired of the 28-year-old’s power play predecessor, Morgan Rielly, yet some stats show that Rielly was better fit for the quarterback role all along.
While Barrie lead with a better HDGF/60, it was actually Rielly who led in HDGF% by nine percent. And as if it seemed like he was the better quarterback, his precursor was still the superior.
But it was Barrie who spearheaded all Leafs defencemen in points with 12 (one goal, 11 assists), yet still, Rielly was right behind him with seven assists and playing 23 less games.
As the 28-year-old got more comfortable quarterbacking the power play, he also improved overall, becoming the offensive defenceman that Kyle Dubas traded for.
From when Keefe was introduced as head coach, to the final game before the NHL suspended play (which was 47 games), Barrie had 32 points. An enormous difference from when Babcock was head honcho, he went from a 25-point pace in a season to a 55-point pace under Keefe.
If Barrie possessed that pace from the beginning of the season, the 28-year-old would’ve been four points shy of his career high in points, which was attained last season in Colorado.
While he succeeded in the back-half of this season, many were expecting more from him in terms of defence. However, Dubas brought him here for more offense, which seemed eerie since the big question mark all along was defending.
As we’ve witnessed, his lack of defending has placed him in a difficult position. The fans aren’t sold on what he can bring on the back-end, but they realize that with him in offense mode, the team is just fine.
From the rocky start to the more-polished finish, you really don’t know what you’re going to get from the 28-year-old. He could come out shaky, or like a brand-new defenceman.
Either way, with the lack of fire power on Columbus, Barrie could have a trouble-free campaign.
Following his performance on the power play, it’ll be interesting to see whether or not he’s the quarterback of PP1 when hockey returns. The success of Barrie on the power play was the steering-wheel to his season, but if we want to talk special teams, from when Keefe came in to the final game of the season (for comparables), the Blue Jackets had the fourth-best penalty kill in the NHL.
This first-round for a lot of teams will be decided on how hot a team comes out of the gate. Yes, the Maple Leafs are a better team on paper but all it takes is a hot goaltender (like Elvis Merzlikins) or Columbus’ potent defence to come out strong for it to turn into an interesting series.
One of the main reasons why I believe Barrie struggled most was because of the lack of defending alongside him. He was paired throughout this season with Rielly, Cody Ceci and Rasmus Sandin, who are each extremely different in their own ways.
None with a great amount of defending attributes, which is why Barrie needs to be alongside a defender who can, essentially, defend.
If Keefe can find a solid partner for Barrie, who can allow him the freedom to join the rush at some points, I think he, and the Maple Leafs will have a successful playoff stint. However if Keefe doesn’t find that player, this playoff could be shorter than expected.