Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Tyson Barrie trade wasn’t just jaw-dropping and an inventive way to steal Free Agency Day headlines; it was also a catalyst for some fascinating debates about how valuable Barrie really is.
Some of the more intriguing Toronto Maple Leafs X-factors boil down to Barrie: how good is he really, and will Mike Babcock manufacture ways to get the most out of him?
If you’re the type to keep things really simple, you’ll note just how prolific a scorer Barrie has been from the blueline, and think that he’s grossly underrated. Barrie managed 59 points in 78 games last season, and had almost as many (57) despite being limited to 68 regular-season contests in 2017-18. Toronto Maple Leafs fans could be forgiven for drooling while imagining how the speedy defenseman’s numbers might translate to an already talented team.
Yet, for those who delve into deeper numbers, Barrie may actually be overrated, and open up a discussion about whether or not he’s much of a net positive for his team. By just about every shot-counting defensive metric, Barrie can at times be a disaster in his own end.
Really, assessing Barrie may come down to questions of taste and priorities. Barrie might be a right-handed shooting version of Roman Josi: a “roving” defenseman who controls the puck a lot, generates results on offense, but who’s overall positive impact can be questioned when you ponder puck possession stats, along with the conundrum: would his team be better off with a forward having the puck on his stick more than Barrie/Josi?
Like Josi, Barrie has shown positive traits when it comes to the transition game. Barrie’s particularly deft at exiting the defensive zone with puck control, as you can see in this All Three Zones chart (by CJ Turtoro with data from Corey Sznajder):
It’s useful to include a comparison to Jake Gardiner for a number of reasons, as Barrie essentially replaces Gardiner in 2019-20.
Barrie might even be a replacement as a go-to scapegoat, honestly. They’re both very useful defensemen who have their flaws, and those flaws get magnified in a harsh market like Toronto. It wouldn’t be one bit shocking if cameras fixated on Barrie during low moments in the same way they seemed glued to Gardiner after Game 7 gaffes.
Yet it’s their one fundamental difference that makes things especially intriguing, and Barrie an X-factor: Gardiner’s a left-handed defenseman, while Barrie shoots with his right.
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Toronto was wise to add Jake Muzzin to a defensive group that saw a huge drop-off after Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, but ultimately, Muzzin was also a tad bit redundant, as all three shoot (and crucially, pass) left-handed.
Even if Barrie might end up being a downgrade from Gardiner, this boost in versatility could be big. It also presents Mike Babcock with a chance to prove that he’s worth the megabucks he’s been receiving from the Maple Leafs.
Theoretically, Babcock could use his experience and system to try to get the best out of Barrie. It’s probably a little much to imagine too much of a “teaching” situation for a defenseman who’s 28, but Babcock could optimize the situation with ideal zone starts, a defensive partner who is adept at denying entries to Toronto’s zone, and finding the right balance between Barrie’s aggressiveness and making safer plays.
Frankly, it’s also just as important that Babcock show patience with Barrie, who’s the type of double-edged sword who could drive a coach mad.
With Barrie entering a contract year, this is most likely to be a short experiment. We’re very much in “win now” territory for Toronto, though, so Babcock needs to get in the lab and use Barrie as a catalyst for a long-awaited breakthrough.
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.