DENVER — When Tyson Barrie was at his absolute best as a member of the Colorado Avalanche, he and Nathan MacKinnon established a rule: Barrie was not allowed to get off the ice during a power play before his partner in crime.
“If I changed he’d yell at me,” said Barrie. “He’d ask me if I was tired or whatever. He wanted me back there so I just kind of changed whenever he changed.”
That helps explain how the puck-distributing defenceman ended up with more power-play ice time than everyone else at his position over the past two seasons and accumulated more points than all but John Carlson and Keith Yandle in that game state.
It may also hold the key to rediscovering his lost confidence after a puzzling first few months with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
For it was not by coincidence that Sheldon Keefe decided to elevate Barrie to the team’s top power-play unit as part of his first changes as head coach. He also put him alongside Morgan Rielly to start Thursday’s game in Arizona — a move that was part precursor of things to come, part reassuring touch on the shoulder for a guy who never found any footing under previous coach Mike Babcock.
As much as Barrie didn’t think it was a vote of confidence he needed with more than 500 NHL games and three 50-point seasons already under his belt, he appreciated the gesture. And it was immediately followed by his first goal in Leafs colours just in time for Saturday’s return to his old stomping grounds.
“I’m not going to lie: That feels good, especially going into Denver,” Barrie said after the 3-1 victory over the Coyotes. “I didn’t want to go in with no goals.”
Following a July 1 trade that saw the Leafs give up their best-value contract, Nazem Kadri, for Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot, the 28-year-old defenceman represented a fault line between Babcock and general manager Kyle Dubas.
Not only did he have his power-play usage cut in half, there almost seemed to be paralysis by analysis with what the coaching staff wanted him to do at even strength. He was a round peg being hammered into a square hole at the expense of his instincts and he suffered through a two-assists-in-19-games slump that made his situation in Toronto look untenable as recently as a week ago.
“You know I’m trying. I think it’s obviously weighing on me a little bit,” Barrie said on Nov. 14. “I’ve never really gone through a stretch like this in my career and switching teams for the first time. You don’t want to feel like you’re letting teammates down and the fans down.”
Barrie believes he’s found a new lease on life under Keefe, who is determined to find him a role that looks more like the one he once filled here in Colorado. That will include more shifts beside Rielly and a chance to work the puck around on a power play that features Auston Matthews, John Tavares and William Nylander.
As an offensive play-driver, he certainly fits the profile of the kind of player the new coach is hoping to lean on.
“We feel like with some of the offensive people that we have and what we’re able to do, that that will make us a better defensive team because we’ll have the puck a lot more,” said Keefe. “We’ll put the other team in tough spots that will limit their ability to transition and play against us.”
When Keefe took time during his introductory press conference to say he was focusing on the kind of team the Leafs are, rather than what they’re not, it was hard not to think of Barrie. He’s never been a strong defensive player, per se, but he has a unique vision and a proven ability to make plays with the puck.
The off-season trade to Toronto caught him off-guard and he’s taken ownership of his own role in the slow start. This can’t all be explained away by a differing view from the coach. But his outlook seemed to turn on a dime when Keefe showed an immediate willingness to build him up and the Leafs bench erupted when Barrie jumped off the point to finally score on his 61st shot this season.
“I think that’s a big monkey off the back for him,” said Matthews.
That monkey was heavier than most because Barrie is in a contract year and had been trending towards one of the least productive seasons of his career.
He’s still dealing with a sense of impermanence — he and Kadri simply switched houses after being traded for one another, with Barrie not really in a position to lay down stronger roots in Toronto — and will be reminded of what he’s left behind this weekend.
“I’ve got to maybe pick up some mail,” he said.
Barrie also planned to grab dinner with MacKinnon and some other former teammates on Friday night. It’s a group he remains tight with after spending a decade in the Avalanche organization and essentially growing into a man in Denver.
There’ll be some different feelings and emotions to contend with when he returns to Pepsi Center as a visitor. He’ll know the guys on the opposite side of the ice much better than he does his own.
“Oh, I’ll tell you who I’m not looking forward to seeing,” said Barrie, in reference to his old buddy MacKinnon, the NHL’s most explosive skater this side of Connor McDavid.
“Yeah. I’ve never played against him in my life,” he said. “I’ve been on the fortunate end of that one when he’s playing well. I’m sure he’ll take it easy on me.”