Barrie breaks out on Avalanche blueline

Tyson Barrie has become a difference-maker on the Avalanche blueline (Bill Kostroun/AP)
April 1, 2014, 1:13 PM

The kudos for the Colorado Avalanche’s surprise season has, justifiably, landed largely in the laps of the team’s dynamic forwards, goalie Semyon Varlamov and coach Patrick Roy. Colorado’s defence corps, however, has come in for much less positive attention, something star centre Matt Duchene expects will change in coming years thanks to the emergence of a player who’s becoming integral to the Avs attack.

“Tyson Barrie has made a statement this year that he’s one of the big-time young up-and-coming defencemen in this league,” Duchene said.

That may seem like high praise for a 22-year-old set to play just his 100th career NHL game Tuesday night in Columbus, but there’s no questioning Barrie’s body of work since late January. The 64th pick in the 2009 draft has 19 points in his past 23 games, and the most recent of the 10 goals he’s scored this year tied him with Alex Ovechkin and James Neal for the league lead in overtime winners with three.

Not bad for a guy whose personal expectations entering the season were much more muted than what Duchene—currently sidelined by a knee injury—sees for him now.

“I was still a bit unsure about what exactly I could do in this league,” said Barrie, who played 32 games as an NHL rookie during last year’s truncated schedule.

That uncertainty lingered through October, when, despite the torrid success of his team, Barrie struggled to find his spot on a blueline that’s not exactly packed with A-listers. In early November, Barrie found himself back in the American Hockey League, trying to untangle his game. After a brief stint riding the bus, Barrie was back with Colorado having fruitful conversations with the coaching staff about his development. Clear communication and support has been a theme all year in Denver, and as time wore on, Barrie began to trust the message that Roy and his assistants were happy to live with the odd error as long as overall growth was evident.

“They kind of let me know it was OK if I made some mistakes and I was jumping or whatever it was,” Barrie said.

Traces of the production we see now started showing just before Christmas, contributing to the 32 points Barrie has in 57 contests this season. Nine of those points have come on the power play, a situation in which Barrie sees more ice time than any other Colorado player. That’s because his superb vision allows him find open teammates with passes, while his fleet feet help him move the puck up ice quickly.

While the top ‘D’ pairing formed by veterans Erik Johnson and Jan Hejda gets the bulk of ice time among Colorado defencemen, Barrie’s plus-16 rating and decent advanced statistics indicate that, for a five-foot-10 player whose most prized assets will always be linked to offence, he’s becoming a trustworthy presence in all three zones.

“He’s learning to do more things defensively and offensively,” said Avalanche centre Paul Stastny.

That improvement bodes well both for Barrie—a restricted free agent who’ll be looking for a new contract this summer—and the Avalanche, who need to tighten their game before they can be seen as true heavyweights in the stacked Western Conference. As for Duchene’s bold proclamation of what lays ahead for his teammate, Barrie’s just happy that a season that began with so much volatility has morphed into his coming out party.

“It’s been a blast this year and it helps that things are going so well for our team,” he said.

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