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Photo Credit: © John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Tulloch: Tyson Barrie Can Be Effective if the Maple Leafs Just Let Him

I’m officially back writing at Leafs Nation!

This is where I got my first “big break” in the industry, when Jeff Veillette signed me to a PTO off of Leafs Reddit in 2017. Most of my stuff these days is hidden behind the paywall over at The Athletic, but this weekly column should be a fun way to give everyone a chance to read some of my thoughts on the Leafs.

The first topic I’m going to tackle is a confusing one.

Here’s a look at the dynamic offensive defenceman the Toronto Maple Leafs acquired over the offseason.

I’m not sure what happened to that player, but he hasn’t suited up for the Maple Leafs Leafs since game one of the regular season. Tyson Barrie has always been one of the most involved offensive players in the NHL. I wrote about that over the offseason, breaking down just how often the puck is on his stick in the offensive zone.

We’re 19 games into the regular season now and still haven’t seen much of that from Barrie. He’s been more conservative with his pinches, isn’t jumping up into the play as often off the rush, and looks flat-out passive out there. When you hear Mike Babcock say Barrie needs to “reinvent his game”, it sounds like there’s been a point of emphasis to not take risks offensively.

That’s a problem.

We’ve known for a while now that Barrie is terrible defensively, which is abundantly clear to anyone who’s watched him play. It’s the reason coaches have typically sheltered him with second pairing usage — where he still gave up tons of shots and chances against. Those defensive concerns aren’t going away any time soon; he’s a bad one-on-one defender.

We can talk about how passive his gap is in transition despite how fantastic a skater he is, but we’ve had those same concerns with Morgan Rielly for years and they haven’t really improved if we’re being honest. At age 28, Barrie is what he is at this point in his NHL career — a bad defensive player.

The Leafs knew that when they acquired him. Babcock knows that’s what he has. So why is he asking Barrie to be something he’s not?

On the one hand, I can understand the logic behind forcing a player into an uncomfortable situation to make them adapt. At some point, though, you have to realize that Barrie is never going to be a player who gives you the defensive play you want, which means you must find a way to extract offensive value from him to make up for it.

There are two main ways to accomplish this in my opinion:

  1. Let him man the point on PP1
  2. Give him the green light to jump up in the play every time at 5-on-5

That first point became a bit contentious on Leafs Twitter a few days ago, with the counterargument being that Rielly has been solid there throughout his career. Hockey analysts I happen to respect — like Anthony Petrielli, for instance — have explained their reasoning on this topic, and it’s worth noting that they have some very sound arguments.

Why would you reward a player with an increased role when they’re playing so poorly? What kind of message does that send?

Not to mention, is Rielly actually the problem with PP1? And even if you put Barrie there, he isn’t a shot threat with your primary playmaker on the left side of the ice.

“While teams sag off Rielly on the power play, the Leafs are putting the puck on Auston Matthews’ side more anyway, so teams can sag off Barrie, too – as a righty, he can’t one-time that puck. While I wrote earlier that I would put Barrie on PP1, I think it only makes sense to do so while running it through Marner on the other side — that way, you can set Barrie up for one-timers.”

That’s a quote from Petrielli’s latest Leafs Notebook, which has become a must-read column in my opinion.

Personally, I disagree with the argument that Rielly hasn’t been a problem on PP1. His weak wristers from the point provide almost zero value, which is why he’s always so open to shoot from there. Defences are practically begging him to take that shot, much like the Boston Bruins did in last year’s playoffs.

With Barrie on PP1, there’s a chance you can make Matthews into more of a facilitator on the right wall, giving him the option to make a pass to Barrie on the point or Nylander on the left dot for a one-timer. Steven Stamkos is a perfect example of a player with an elite one-timer who also facilitates on the power play, with one-time options available on the point with Victor Hedman and on the opposite dot with Nikita Kucherov.

The fact that the 19-game mark has come and gone and the Leafs haven’t even tried it is pretty frustrating, to say the least. Sometimes Babcock reminds me of that Simpsons meme – “We’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas!”

Maybe try that elite offensive defenceman you just acquired on the first unit power play.

Even if they don’t try Barrie there, the bigger issue has been his 5-on-5 play. Barrie is last on the team in 5-on-5 Points Per 60 among defencemen — last! The only Leafs with worse point production at even strength thus far are Nick Shore and AHL Legend Martin Marincin. How is that even possible?

Well, when your coach is trying to make your team play more like the Minnesota Wild than the prime Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s not going to bring the most out of you offensively.

Based on the way the Leafs have played this season, there’s a legitimate case behind the #FireBabcock movement. Their conservative style has resulted in the team giving up slightly fewer chances defensively in 2019-20, sure, but it’s completely suffocated their offence.

Much like the time Peter Chiarelli was handed a Lamborghini in Edmonton and tried to turn it into a pickup truck, I’m getting the sense that Babcock wants the Leafs to play a style of game that just doesn’t fit with the talent on their roster.

To get the most out of this team, they need to be playing an up-tempo game, activating their defencemen on the breakout and aggressively taking away space in the offensive zone with a “five-man forecheck.” You can tighten things up without the puck while still emphasizing speed and puck possession.

The Carolina Hurricanes are a fantastic example of this blueprint.

What’s frustrating is that the Leafs did all those things in 2016-17 — the year they lost to Washington in the first round of the playoffs — but they’ve weirdly regressed in the seasons that followed. The team was able to dominate play in March and April of 2019 with the addition of Jake Muzzin and Nazem Kadri returning from injury, of course, so this isn’t to say Toronto can’t have success trying to win games 2-1 instead of 5-4.

If the Leafs want to get the most out of Barrie, though, they need to set him free. He’s at his best when he’s jumping up in the play, especially off of turnovers.

Plays like these are exactly what we want to see more of from Barrie. Whether or not the coaching staff agrees is an entirely different question, but what I know is this: Barrie can make phenomenal plays with the puck in open space when he’s given the freedom to do so.

Set this man free. He can provide so much more value offensively if you let him.