VANCOUVER – Welcome to beautiful British Columbia, where the air tastes fresher, the scenery is more likely to snatch your breath, the sashimi cuts are more generous, and the local Maple Leafs have come home to leap into the rush and (hopefully) into the Vancouver Canucks’ worst dreams.
“It should develop into a pairing that’s kind of a nightmare for other teams to play against,” says Tyson Barrie. “It’s crucial to have the green light. I think we’ve got it, and we’ll just get more comfortable and we’ll start pushing the pace.”
The Victoria native is finally in a good place, both geographically and mentally, as he speaks with relaxed confidence ahead of his third full game to the right of friend, off-season training mate and fellow “B.C. boy” Morgan Rielly, Vancouver born and raised.
New coach Sheldon Keefe’s connection of two of the sport’s most offensively gifted defencemen flies against the more traditional Babcockian logic of matching one puck-moving play-driver with a more responsible, stay-at-home, not-so-fleet-of-foot type like Ron Hainsey or Cody Ceci.
And this progressive all-in approach, where offence is the best defence, suits Barrie just fine, thank you. He uses words like “freedom” and “active,” and he’s smiling all the while, giddy to be relying on his instincts again, as opposed to agonizing over his positioning and mistakes.
“It’s different, more involved,” says Barrie, admitting he had to recalibrate his brain to adjust to Mike Babcock’s system after being encouraged to flap his wings in Colorado. “It feels more comfortable to me.
“More freedom. If you make a mistake, come back hard.
“We got a lot of talent and, quite bluntly, a lot of guys taking a lot of money. And there’s a reason for that — they’re unbelievable players. They’re incredibly talented, so we want to see a little bit.”
The Rielly-Barrie twosome is Keefe attempting to milk as many goals out of this roster as possible. The B.C. boys combined for a whopping 214 points in their two seasons leading up to being Leafs teammates, so the coach is throwing them over the boards with Auston Matthews or John Tavares’s top lines and giving them each a power-play unit to quarterback.
“You play off instincts. You go when you can. And when it’s not there, you don’t go,” reasons Rielly, who hasn’t played with anyone of Barrie’s skill-set since his days with Jake Gardiner.
“Well, Gards was a gambler. It’s different, but it’s fun.”
In their first two games together, tight affairs versus powerhouses Colorado and St. Louis, Barrie and Rielly generated seven shots on net, an even rating, and one assist (Rielly’s).
Not quite the stuff of night terrors, but their underlying numbers in their 104 minutes on-ice together — 58 per cent Corsi, 57 per cent of scoring chances generated, 5.95 expected goals — suggest good things could be around the corner. Of course, it should be noted that the Rielly-Barrie pairing has started in the offensive zone 87(!) per cent of the time (all metrics via NaturalStatTrick.com).
Rielly deadpans the phrase “geographical chemistry.” He understands the duo is still a work-in-progress, especially in the D-zone, but is encouraged by the early returns.
“We’re pretty open with one another, and we talk about how we can improve,” Reilly says. “We got a ways to go, but we’re looking forward to the challenges that are coming. And we want to make it work. We both said that. So we’re going to just keep talking.”
Barrie insists it’s a myth to paint him and Rielly as risk-takers, that they’re veterans smart about when to jump. He knows the safe coach would be hesitant to load up its back-end weapons but views Keefe’s experiment as a trend to the future.
“They like to stay away from two offensive-minded guys, but I don’t see any reason why it won’t work. We’re both responsible defensively,” Barrie says. “[The typical approach is] kind of everyone has a role and you just sort of stay with it, but I think we’re going more the other direction, where we want everybody moving and replacing each other and kind of playing all positions and being a five-man unit.”
Keefe was asked if he’s worried that placing his two most productive blueliners together could result in some ugly defensive breakdowns.
“I’m not concerned about that,” Keefe responds. “With the way that they skate to just the way we’re trying to adjust our structure, we think it helps all of our players and insulates our defence a lot better.
“But also, in pairing them with some of our better players, the hope is the play is in the in the other half of the ice, knowing that it’s not always going to be the case. But we trust these guys. They are good players and reliable players in their own right, and they recognize what we want to get done on both sides of the puck.”
Keefe made a point to speak with all four of the Maple Leafs’ B.C. boys — forwards Alexander Kerfoot and Nic Petan are the others — ahead of Tuesday’s puck drop, recognizing the excitement that comes from a once-a-year treat to perform in front of friends and family. Barrie gathered a crew 15 deep for dinner on the town.
Thinking back to his own Toronto return dates from his playing days, Keefe wants the Vancouver game to act as a boost for those players, a reprieve from the 82-game grind.
“Yeah, we got a good crew: Me, Mo, Kerf, Petey. We’re all B.C. boys, so we like to let everyone know just how beautiful it is out this way and you know how enjoyable it is to be here,” Barrie smiles. “[Reilly and I] have played two games together, we’re enjoying it, and we’re good buddies, so maybe this will just take us to the next level, being back home.”
Rielly curbs his partner’s enthusiasm just a tad.
“We like coming home,” he says, “but there’s no question it’s business trip.”