Q&A: Tyson Barrie on Sheldon Keefe and fitting in with Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Tyson. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

Tyson Barrie packed a season’s worth of ups and downs into his first few months as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Following the first trade of his NHL career, and playing as a pending unrestricted free agent for the first time, Barrie endured an agonizing 18-game stretch from early October until mid-November where he produced just one assist.

It was enough to make the offensive-minded defenceman question whether he and the Leafs were the right fit.

However, his fortunes have swung since Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock behind the Toronto bench on Nov. 20 — a change that saw Barrie’s deployment start to look more like what he was used to with the Colorado Avalanche. Not only have his counting stats improved, but he’s produced an expected goals-for percentage of 55.27 since then.

With the arrival of the Leafs bye week, Barrie was looking forward to a rejuvenating trip to the Bahamas with some buddies. The timing for sun, rest and relaxation couldn’t have been better.

“I think at this point of the year everyone’s got bumps and bruises,” he said. “There’s things that could feel better. A week of not skating, it’s huge for injuries and just letting the body kind of get back to neutral.”

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In a conversation just before the bye week began, the affable Barrie reflected on his rough start in Toronto, how life has changed under Sheldon Keefe, what it’s like playing for a contract, why he thinks the Leafs style will translate to the playoffs and much more.

Sportsnet: Your season has featured a little bit of everything for you. How do you look back on your first 50 games as a Leaf?

Tyson Barrie: Really a bit of a roller-coaster, you know? It’s a lot of expectation when you get traded for a guy that’s such a big part of the team like (Nazem Kadri). You want to come in and do what’s advertised and be the guy that I was in Colorado. Obviously it didn’t shape up like that in the first 20 or so games, and it was a bit disappointing, but I feel like I’ve kind of found my stride in the last little while and things are starting to go a little bit better for me and the team’s having success. So it’s, right now, a very positive thing for me.

SN: Did you have any doubts early in the year about whether it was going to work here for you?

TB: Yeah, I think it’s human nature. When you’re not doing what you’re used to doing, or you’re not having the success that you’re used to, you start doubting yourself. It’s hard to stay positive. But you just stick with it and thankfully there’s a lot of good guys in this room, and they were good to me when I was struggling. We kept it light and joked around and it’s nice to come out the other end of it.

SN: You’re a veteran guy, but did you learn anything about yourself going through that?

TB: That was the worst start I’ve ever had in my career, so it was nice to just kind of find out what kind of guy you’re going to be when things aren’t going well. I tried to stay positive and be a good teammate. It’s easier said than done sometimes, but I was proud of it. I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel if you can get through the hard stuff.

SN: You’ve been open about the contract year being tough to deal with, have you gotten to a better place with that?

TB: For sure. It is what it is, it puts a little bit of added pressure on you. You can’t dwell on it; it’s going to take care of itself. I think at the end of the day you’ve just got to trust the process and come to the rink and do what you do that’s got you here and made you be successful. I think that’s kind of the mindset that I’ve taken.

SN: Has anyone given you advice about how to deal with it?

TB: No, no. There’s guys going through so many different things in this league all the time. It’s part of the gig. You’ve just got to deal with it.

SN: As a defenceman who relies on a lot on his offensive instincts, did you face much pushback when you were younger?

TB: No, not at all. My dad (former NHLer Len Barrie) was my coach and he really encouraged it. I played forward in the summers and then defence in the winter and he was always encouraging me to be creative and jump in the play and try to create offence. If I was doing something stupid he would let me know, but he was always super supportive of the style of play.

SN: What about when you got older?

TB: Even when I went to junior (with the Kelowna Rockets), I was used to doing things in minor hockey and kind of getting away with it because I was faster and maybe a little better. But once you get to junior you’ve got to figure it out a little more and tighten
it up. I was fortunate in that I had good coaches and good people around that kind of saw what my game was and tried to help take it to another level.

SN: How has your relationship developed with Sheldon Keefe?

TB: He’s been great. The way that he wants to play the game, it suits my style very well. It’s a five-man offence, getting the ‘D’ involved, and it’s a five-man defence with everyone chipping in. I think that’s more what I’m used to playing and how I think I’m successful. It’s been a good fit and he’s an incredibly intelligent hockey guy and a nice person, so it’s been a good fit.

SN: Do you see many other teams trying to play like you guys?

TB: A little bit. Since we made the switch, you can kind of see teams are maybe wondering ‘Oh, maybe there’s something to this.’ It’s exciting for the fans to watch and I think it’s the way the game should be played.

SN: Now that you have a better feel for this team what do you think it’s capable of?

TB: The thing that’s scary about us is we can score five, six, seven goals on any given night. That’s a luxury that not a lot of teams have. The defensive side of it, that’s on us — that’s all heart, that’s will, that’s commitment to it. And we’ve got an outstanding goaltender. So there’s no reason we can’t contend for the whole thing. I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t.

SN: Do you understand why some people question whether your style can work in the playoffs?

TB: Yeah, 100 per cent, but you never know what’s going to happen in the playoffs. It’s such an unpredictable one. We’re going to be 22 guys in here that are committed to winning and when the playoffs roll around, I mean everything just dials up. You’re so focused.

If we’re playing the way we are and you’re supposed to be F3 you’re going to be F3. There’s not going to be the lapses that maybe we’ve shown a little bit — and we’re trying to work that out, we’re going through video, we’re sorting it out. I think when that time comes we’ll be pretty dialled in.

SN: What did you learn from your playoff run with Colorado last spring?

TB: Beating Calgary was a great experience and then losing Game 7 (to San Jose) was brutal, it was tough. Just winning a round and then getting to Game 7, being one game away from the conference final, it just kind of takes it off a pedestal for you. You feel almost that it’s attainable and you kind of wrap your head around it, so I think that was a big step for myself.

SN: You live downtown and take TTC (public transit) to the games. Do you get noticed much? What are your impressions of the city?

TB: Everyone’s really nice. If they notice me, they always just say ‘Hey good luck’ or ‘Welcome to Toronto.’ Everyone’s been super supportive. I’m starting to really enjoy the city and getting to know it. Knowing my way around. It’s an amazing city and a very vibrant spot to live. I’m grateful to be here.

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