St. John’s, N.L. – Meaningless preseason games don’t tend to intimidate NHL veterans, but Tyson Barrie couldn't quell some unexpected butterflies before his first outing as a Maple Leaf on Tuesday.
“It’s probably the first preseason game I’ve played in a while where I’m a little nervous, a little anxious,” Barrie said ahead of Toronto’s exhibition matchup against Ottawa at Mile One Centre. “It’s kind of a crazy experience getting traded and this is the first real crack I have at a game where I get to put that uniform on. I’m looking forward to it.”
It’s been months since the Colorado Avalanche sent Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot to the Leafs in exchange for Nazem Kadri and Calle Rosen on July 1, but in some ways the trade is still sinking in. Barrie had spent his entire eight-year professional career in the Avalanche organization, producing 307 points (75 goals, 232 assists) in 484 NHL games.
He's emerged as one of the league's top offensive defencemen in recent seasons, posting 154 points (35 goals, 119 assists) in 220 games since 2016-17 – the ninth-most among defencemen in that stretch. But playing in the Western Conference meant Barrie wasn’t as scrutinized as he’s expecting to be with the Leafs. That will come with its own challenges, particularly in fending off criticism that he’s not consistent enough in the defensive zone.
“It’s up to me to come as advertised and play well,” Barrie said. “Whatever the pundits think, if [they think] I'm good, that’s great. And hopefully I’m not in the spotlight for the wrong reason.”
Fortunately for Barrie, he landed not only on the same roster as his good friend Jake Muzzin, he’s also been paired with him so far at Toronto’s training camp. The two blueliners won gold together playing for Team Canada at the World Championship in 2015, and it was a no-brainer for head coach Mike Babcock to try them together out of the gate in Toronto.
“I think they complement each other,” Babcock said. “Muz’s intelligence in the game and his experience is really, really good and he’s a calming force. Barrie is a confident guy who has a high skill set who I think is just scratching the surface. I think he can get way better. I think he wants that, and we’re looking forward to that.”
Being able to lean on Muzzin and their close off-ice relationship has made all the difference for Barrie, especially during Babcock’s up-tempo practices.
“It’s nice to have him guiding me around and showing me the ropes on the drills,” Barrie said. “There are so many things you become accustomed to on one team when you’re there for so long, and to switch it up when things are moving fast, I’m always checking in with Muz like, ‘Hey, what do we do? What do I do here? What do I do there?’ He’s been great with me.”
Having already spent two seasons with Barrie in Colorado prior to the trade, Kerfoot doesn’t think his teammate will need too much help finding his way with the Leafs and duplicating the success he had out west.
“You just see him around the rink, on the ice; he just has that attitude about him. He knows he’s a good player,” Kerfoot said. “It’s not cockiness by any means, but he’s got confidence on the ice. He’s got confidence to make plays and he’s confident when he’s playing with good players.”
That’s what Barrie sees when he looks at Toronto’s defence, despite knowing how maligned the blueline has been the past few seasons. Barrie remembers well how former Leaf Jake Gardiner was booed on home ice during the Avalanche’s 6-3 win over the Leafs last January and feels strongly there won’t be any need for such reaction this season.
“I didn’t like seeing [Gardiner booed] because I think Gards is a great guy and a great player, so it can be a tough place to play if you get the fans against you,” Barrie said. “But it can also be an amazing place to play. Our d-corps is mobile and we’ve got some guys with a lot of games back there, so we shouldn’t have any issues.”
Given the enthusiastic reception Toronto’s players have received in Newfoundland, it’s unlikely there will be any boo birds coming out on Tuesday. And if those lingering nerves don't subside, maybe it’s for the best that Barrie makes his anticipated debut on the road.
“To play my first exhibition game outside [Toronto] might actually take a little pressure off,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been kind of a crazy experience in itself [in St. John’s]. But to get out of the city and settle in with the team a little bit before we go back to Toronto has been nice.”