It was only a couple years ago that the reigning thought about the Leafs was that their blue line would hold them back (everyone in Toronto can conveniently forget the goalie on command in amazing fashion). They clearly have the forwards for a Cup run, perhaps the most talented grouping in the league. And yet for a few years now the Leafs have given up way too many chances and shots. This year’s been a little different, as they’re in the middle of the pack in the amount of attempts and chances they give up. Their penalty kill has let them down, but at evens they’ve been just about where you want to be.
A couple years ago, the Leafs blue line was a bit slow. But then they picked up Jake Muzzin last year. And Travis Dermott got more experience. And then this past summer, they made the big splash and shipped out problem child Nazem Kadri to Colorado for Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot. Barrie was supposed to be the missing piece, the third puck-mover they didn’t have who could keep the forwards from having to come all the way back in their own zone and could get them out in space more often where they’re beyond lethal.
On the surface, Barrie’s numbers don’t look too much worse than what he did in Denver. His Corsi-percentage is almost exactly the same as it was as an Avalanche last year. But do any digging and things have been a tire fire so far. Barrie’s xG% has dropped from 52.4% to 45.4% this year, and he’s lagging way behind the team rate. Moreover, Barrie provided scoring from the back end in Colorado. He had 14 goals each of the past two seasons and over 55 points as well. So far this year he only has five assists. Even worse, he’s not getting the looks he got earlier in his career either. He’s getting the same attempts at evens, but they’re from beyond three-point range, as his expected tallies and scoring chances are down either to one-third or one quarter of what they were in Denver.
It’s the same story on the power play, where he’s not getting as much time in Toronto, and his chances just aren’t as good as they used to be. So what gives?
It could be a matter of partner. In Colorado, Barrie spent most of his time with Ian Cole (BAYBAY!), who would just simply be a free safety for him and back him up in his forays. Now in Toronto, he’s playing with Jake Muzzin, who has a very similar game to Barrie’s. So it appears that Barrie is deferring to Muzzin, as Muzzin’s numbers are a little closer to what he’s done before. It’s not the best use of Barrie, but then again it might not be the best use of Muzzin to reverse it either. It’s only 17 games, and there’s plenty of time to see how they can get the best out of both, but it’s been a rocky start.
Maybe it doesn’t help that every Leafs defender aside from Morgan Rielly and his odd expressions is on audition. Every one of them is a free agent in the summer, and the Leafs can only keep a couple thanks to their cap situation. It could be a complete reset. Throw in the normal pressure of playing in Toronto, and you see what the issues could be.
It’s not what they pictured when they picked up Barrie, and Kadri killing it Colorado hasn’t helped the fans’ morale. Then again, nothing does. But the Leafs blue line went from one of the slower ones around to one of the more nifty ones in just two seasons, and the question is whether Mike Babcock the one to figure out how to maximize it. While there’s plenty of games, the Atlantic Division is just about as devilish as it gets and the last thing the Leafs want is to be staring up at the Bruins and starting the playoffs in Boston again. Figuring out this puzzle would be a major step.