After the Toronto Maple Leafs lost a heartbreaker to the Montreal Canadiens in overtime on Saturday night, all that kept appearing on my Twitter timeline was fans blaming Tyson Barrie for the loss.
The reason? He had the puck at the point and took a low percentage shot that killed possession and resulted in the winning goal at the other end of the ice.
This entire sequence just about sums up Leafs fans’ frustrations with Barrie’s play so far this season. In some Leafs fans’ minds, he comes across as a player that is blindly shooting pucks from far out and is hurting the team’s chances of success at both ends.
Some of these faults of Barrie may be true as he is not effective in his own end at limiting shots against. At the same time, he has also been a force in the offensive zone at getting pucks on target. Want to know what else is true? He has recorded five goals, 26 assists, and 31 points in 56 games, leading all Leafs defenceman in scoring. According to my calculations, that makes him on pace for roughly seven goals, 38 assists, and 45 points. Should he hit that mark, it would be the fourth time in his career that Barrie surpasses the 40 point mark.
On most teams, that would be a godsend to have a defenceman racking up points like that. In Toronto, however, the focus is squarely on his shot selection and the fact he takes too many point shots that rarely go in. And while that is true, it’s hard to deny that he has been doing his job racking up points as a defender.
Because that’s exactly what Barrie’s role is: he’s an offensive defenceman.
With that being his role, Barrie is going to be much better on the attack than in his own zone. Players like him thrive off jumping into the play, setting up scoring chances, and getting shots on net themselves. That’s why they aren’t as effective in their own end of the rink or on transition defence; it’s just the nature of being a defender who is at their best on the charge.
Many Colorado Avalanche fans were likely well aware of Barrie’s defensive shortcomings, but they also knew that when he was on the prowl either at even strength (ES) or the power play, Barrie was one of their best options to produce something offensively.
Taking it a step further, take a look at his underlying numbers at ES as of February 9th:
These numbers represent a player that has been able to help his team maintain possession more and generate more chances when he’s on the ice. While they aren’t eye-popping stats, they are solid nonetheless.
It’s true that numbers don’t tell the full story, but the above stats represent a defenceman that is doing his part. However, there is more to the story than just his underlying metrics.
Barrie has an on-ice SH% of 8.86, a 89.91 on-ice SV%, and a .988 PDO at ES. This means he has been fairly unlucky when it comes to team performance, which is partly out of his control. Jake Gardiner, by contrast, posted a 10.76 on-ice SH%, a 93.06 on-ice SV%, and a 1.038 PDO in his last season as a Maple Leaf, showing he was far more fortuitous compared to Barrie.
There’s no doubt that the loss of Gardiner stung, but Barrie has been doing his part to fill some of the void. By no means is this to suggest that the two are the same type of player (they aren’t), but it’s clear to see that the two players have indistinguishable numbers in a few areas.
Barrie was not brought in to become the second coming of Gardiner. The Leafs traded for him to add some firepower to their backend and increase the depth on the right side. It may not have worked exactly how Kyle Dubas envisioned it (*cough cough* Cody Ceci *cough cough*), but the Leafs would be in a much more precarious position this year if they didn’t have Barrie at all.
Which brings us back to the impasse that has some Leafs fans indignant of Barrie’s play this season: his lacklustre shot selection.
Let’s not beat around the bush here: Barrie’s shot selection is not the best. It has prematurely ended a lot of offensive possessions, mainly because of his insistence to blast pucks from the point.
This type of strategy isn’t going to work from far out, especially if the puck doesn’t hit the target or doesn’t bounce in a position to be collected by his teammates. So far this season, Barrie has only created 11 rebounds at ES and just 13 in all situations (AS). This is a massive downgrade from where he was a season ago when he created 26 rebounds ES and 35 rebounds AS.
It also doesn’t help that his SH% at ES is at a putrid 3.17%, which would be the lowest mark of his career (apart from the lockout shortened 2013 season when he registered a 2.17 ES SH%).
So what can Barrie do to reverse the trend? He just needs to simplify his approach when shooting the puck.
Instead of going for the one-timer from the point, he should try instead to keep the shot low for a chance for it to be deflected or create a rebound. If the opportunity presents itself, he should jump into the play and fire the puck from a higher percentage area. If none of the options present themselves, he should simply pass to a teammate that can put the puck in the net.
Barrie was doing that for a stretch immediately following the promotion of Sheldon Keefe as head-coach, but has gone away from that as of late. The coaching staff has to figure out a way to get Barrie to alter his approach in the offensive zone and if he can find that new gear, he should have more success shooting the puck.
Being in the prime of his NHL career at age 28, Barrie is what he is at this point in terms of his role and play style. He’s not going to transform into a defensive defenceman overnight, but he can be more effective in his own end of the ice. Again, that will be up to the coaching staff to try and streamline his defensive technique.
He may be on pace for nearly 50 points on the season, but he can be more of a threat in the offensive end. His underlying metrics may be decent, but he can also be better adept at dictating possession of the puck. His on-ice luck may be down for the count, but he has proven to have more favourable results in the past.
All of this to say that Tyson Barrie has been fine this season. He can, however, be better than what he has shown.