When the Toronto Maple Leafs made the organizational decision to pay all of their young superstar forwards, they knew there was an opportunity cost with the decision – an opportunity cost that would inhibit their ability to shore up a blueline that has frequently been a work in progress in the Mike Babcock era.
There has long been a debate over whether or not the Leafs should have cut ties with one of those forwards or avoided the unrestricted free agency signing of centre John Tavares. I don’t think that debate will end any time soon.
But all of those preceding decisions meant the Leafs – who knew they were in need of assistance on the blueline, yet limited in what they could do – had to get creative, especially with steady defenceman Jake Gardiner on his way out.
Two trades ushered in a new era for the Toronto defence. The first was somewhat of a cap move, with the Maple Leafs parting ways with Nikita Zaitsev in exchange for Ottawa’s Cody Ceci. Both players had struggled with their respective teams, and though Toronto was probably hopeful they could rebuild parts of Ceci’s game, the hundreds of games of data preceding the trade gave us a pretty firm understanding of what was and what was not part of Ceci’s overarching skillset.
The second trade – and the one that really would help shape Toronto’s direction on defence – was the blockbuster engineered with Colorado. The focal pieces of the deal included Nazem Kadri (out) and Alexander Kerfoot (in), but Tyson Barrie was also part of that package.
With Gardiner out of the fold and Ron Hainsey also gone from Toronto’s top four, Barrie figured to be a significant piece of the Maple Leafs’ defence in 2019-20.
As expected, Barrie has taken on a major role in Toronto through the first month of the season. He’s averaging more than 22 minutes a night, just behind Ceci for the second spot on the Leafs defence.
But those minutes have been dreadful. Playing predominantly with the defensively capable Jake Muzzin, the Maple Leafs have watched as their second pairing bleeds dangerous opportunities against, culminating in disadvantageous territorial play whenever they’re on the ice.
Consider the on/off numbers for the Leafs and Barrie, specifically. [Note: the splits from Oct. 16, the cutoff date for the NHL fixing their shot coordinate issues, are actually worse than season-to-date numbers.]
Though the shot advantage is still in Toronto’s favour with the Barrie pairing on the ice, adjusting for shot quality tells a decisive story – one that is much more in line with Barrie’s goal differential so far this season.
Getting barely 45 per cent of the expected goals in the first month of the season probably isn’t what Toronto had in mind. What makes matters a worse is there aren’t many contextual answers for the numbers. The most common line Barrie has played with is centered by Auston Matthews. He’s seeing more shift starts in the offensive zone than the defensive zone. He’s been used sparingly on special teams – he has avoided the penalty kill altogether, and has only seen second-unit power-play minutes – which should preserve his game for even strength.
It’s worth noting that regression-based assessments of his game so far show a similar theme – Leafs skaters are generally getting worse results when on the ice with Barrie, and better results when split from him.
By the same three measures, we can see Barrie is having a negative impact on expected goal and goal differentials, and a marginally positive impact on shot differentials:
All this to say: I’m not ready to sound the alarm on Barrie just yet. He has a track record of delivering results at the NHL level, though his production did start to sour a bit in the last couple of seasons in Colorado.
But the Leafs need to continue monitoring this, and may even want to consider changing up their defensive pairings. Right now, the Barrie results are ugly, and the inability to suppress dangerous scoring chances against is indicative of a larger issue that has plagued this franchise for a few seasons.
Data via Evolving Hockey and Hockey Reference