Leafs’ Barrie at peace despite uncertainty around free agency, NHL season

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Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Tyson Barrie (94) celebrates with the bench after his goal in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Colorado Avalanche. (John Leyba/AP)

TORONTO — Before Tyson Barrie’s contract year was paused by a pandemic, it featured one of the longest scoring droughts of his entire life. It saw a coaching change flip his fortunes with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but still included an uncomfortable couple of days leading up to the trade deadline while the team explored his market.

Yeah, you can say the offensive-minded defenceman has seen some things over the last several months.

And here he is on May 20 back home in Victoria waiting to find out if the next act of his professional life will include returning to the ice with the Leafs for a playoffs unlike any other, or going off in search of his next contract as an unrestricted free agent.

“It’s a weird time to be heading into free agency, that’s for sure,” Barrie said Wednesday. “It’s an odd time, but at this point, I think all I’ve got to do right now is focus on getting ready to play, if we are going to play, and to take a run with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs.

“That’s why they brought me in and that would be pretty spectacular, so hopefully we get a chance to do that.”

There really doesn’t seem to be any illusion about the Leafs being a longer-term option for Barrie. While they may have a continuing need for capable right shots on their blue line, the fit has never been quite right between team and player.

It’s telling that Barrie’s first thought when asked for his free-agent priorities is just that — “fit.”

“I think it has to be a spot where they obviously are in need of someone like myself and a good team heading in the right direction and a good organization,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of organizations that fit those boxes, so it’ll be a process where you sit down and just go through everything and what’s important to me.”

Barrie arrived in Toronto last July 1 as a key part of a mini-blockbuster that saw Nazem Kadri sent to the Colorado Avalanche for him and Alexander Kerfoot.

Coming off a 59-point season with the only NHL team he’d ever known, Barrie wasn’t initially deployed on the Leafs’ top power-play unit by former coach Mike Babcock. That certainly contributed to an agonizing 18-game stretch where he recorded just one assist and faced some self-doubt.

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It is no coincidence that one of Sheldon Keefe’s first acts after replacing Babcock on Nov. 20 was moving Barrie up to PP1 and, with the weight of the world shifted from the player’s shoulders, saw him immediately respond with goals in consecutive games.

Looking back, the 28-year-old is proud that he resisted any instinct to change how he plays during that rocky start. Water eventually started to find its level and Barrie had 39 points through 70 games when the season was paused — behind the pace of his previous two seasons, but still good for 22nd among all NHL defencemen after the worst two-month start of his career.

“I’m not sure I ever gave enough credit to guys who get traded and have to kind of change their whole lives and move and come into a new team and fit in right away,” said Barrie. “I think it’s a little tougher than I gave credit for. I’m glad I’ve had the experience to see that first-hand.”

The entire sport remains in limbo because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Barrie seems eager to finish what he started in Toronto. He concedes that the playoff formats being discussed aren’t “ideal” and is trying to approach the possibility of going inside a bubble in a hub city the same way he would when he’s represented Canada at the IIHF World Hockey Championship in Europe.

“I think in a time like this how could anything be super traditional?” said Barrie. “I think the integrity (of the playoffs) will be there because it’s still going to be the best players in the world playing against each other for the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup. It will certainly be weird without fans, or whatever the scenario unfolds to be, but I think we all have to adapt and be willing to adapt and kind of realize that it’s not going to be this perfect, classic NHL playoffs.

“I think for the situation that we’re in, for a year, I think that’s fine.”

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Barrie has found some solace during the 10-week quarantine on daily walks with his dog, Ralph. He loves spending time outdoors and says the weather on Vancouver Island has been ideal.

As with pretty much everyone right now, there is no shortage of things he could be worried about — like the damage being done to the NHL’s business at the precise moment he’s coming up for a new contract — but Barrie seems at peace with whatever comes next.

“It’s one of those things where I think you work a long time to get to a point where you’re a free agent and teams want you,” he said. “For sure there’s been moments where it seems a little dire, but I think for me just keeping in perspective what is going on in the world (has helped). …

“At the end of the day, I’m very blessed and fortunate to be able to play a sport and make a good living doing it.”

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