Sheldon Keefe couldn’t have written it better himself. A struggling offensive defenseman is unleashed under a new coach and system, quickly potting his first and second goals of the season. Barrie has served as a useful metaphor for both the changing direction of the team, and Leafs fans’ sentiment following two recent wins. While we only have a two game sample size for Keefe’s Leafs, Barrie serves as a good example of how Keefe’s system enables the roster to play to their strengths, instead of forcing a gritty defensive style on offensively gifted players. The side-by-side image below mirrors the feelings of a lot of Leafs fans this past week. Barrie’s longing smirk following an October loss has turned to an optimistic smile, as he, and leafs fans alike hope to build on their recent wins.
While it’s too early for a more scientific analysis of Barrie’s bounce-back – this post will investigate some of the improvements we’ve seen in his game since the coaching change, and investigate some of the reasons Barrie seems more like himself under Keefe.
So how much better has Barrie been since Keefe has taken the helm? We’ve obviously seen the results on the scoresheet – but we wouldn’t expect Barrie to shoot 0% all year, even under Babcock. The eye-test suggest Barrie is performing much better – perhaps boosted by a combination of Keefe’s system and newfound confidence/energy. Barrie looks like what Leaf’s fans were expecting when the Kadri trade went through – a dynamic and offensively gifted defenseman with a high propensity of jumping up in the play and creating chances offensively. Under Babcock, we were used to seeing Barrie throw low-danger chances from the point, and now Barrie has two goals where he held the puck for a much more dangers chance right in the slot. Let’s take a look at the numbers to see if they suggest a large improvement.
I’ll be using expected goals to analyze Barrie’s performance – a model that takes into account things like shot location and angle for assessing shots. If we look at Barrie’s on ice expected goals at 5v5, we’ll first notice his struggles over the course of the season in helping generate offense and preventing chances on defense. Since early October, when Barrie’s been on the ice, the opposition has generated more chances in almost every single game. In the past three games, this trend has reversed as Barrie and his linemates have controlled quality chances against the opposition:
There are a few reasons why this could be – you’ll notice a decent amount of volatility in the chart above so maybe it’s random. It could be a string of easy competition that has buoyed the team’s overall Expected Goals. I am going to take a deeper look into Barrie’s on-ice shot locations, and his usage as potential reasons for his apparent improvement.
Prior to Babcock’s departure, there was a lot of discussion about the Leaf’s sudden inability to generate quality chances. Specifically, the good folks at Pension Plan Puppets wrote this piece about the repeatability of Expected Goals and Ian Tulloch of The Athletic wrote about the Leaf’s struggles and attributes it to the defense activating into the play. The lack of high danger scoring chances, and reliance on point shots had a lot of us scratching our heads, and shot happy defensemen like Barrie were beginning to frustrate fans. Barrie is a useful case study in seeing just how much things have changed on offense, and if the new system is creating better opportunities for Barrie and his linemates.
The below heatmap comparison is relatively encouraging for Leafs fans. It supports the trend in Expected Goals we noted above, in that shot locations appear to be moving away from the points and towards the slot. The first chart shows Barrie’s on-ice 5v5 heatmap for the entire season, and two things jump out. In the Leaf’s defensive end, things are a little concerning with what appears like a whole lot of chances in front of the leafs net. On offense, things look similar but we also have point shots, particularly on Barrie’s right side being a popular shot location.
The heatmap for the 2 games since the coaching change look slightly better, though an obvious small sample caveat given the limited data. Barrie showed an improvement in his own end, with shots mostly occurring outside the high-danger area. On offense, there are still some point shots being taken, but a majority of the shots are being taken from below the circles. Barrie, and the rest of the Leafs defensemen for the matter, are a shot happy bunch, and I wouldn’t expect shots from distance to entirely dry up, but it is encouraging to see more quality chances being taken. Barrie’s first goal, where instead of being stagnant at the point and floating a wrister, he kept his feet moving and cut into the danger area, is hopefully what we see more of.
Barrie’s changing usage also shouldn’t be ignored, as he has moved onto the third pairing with Travis Dermott and is facing less talented opposition. A quite enjoy Micah Blake McCurdy’s viz for illustrating TOI versus competition, which is included below. The size of the square indicates the amount of 5v5 time the given pair played against one another, and the area fill represents shot share during that time. Against Colorado, Barrie largely avoided the MacKinnon line – spending most of their time against the Kadri and Kamenev lines. Similarly against Arizona, Barrie matched up most often against the Coyote’s fourth line and 3rd defensive pair.
The shot share results were particularly good in the game against the Coyotes, and could be seen as an encouraging sign of Barrie’s new usage. Sheltering him against top competition will help get his confidence up in the short term, and provide lots of opportunity to join in the rush and create goals for the long term.
There are reasons the good performances could be a one-off – the Coyotes didn’t look like a great hockey team and Barrie was likely to play with intensity against his old team – but the results are encouraging, or at least, more encouraging than the first 23 games. As noted potty mouth John Tavares would say, let’s ****ing build on this Barrie!