On May 13, Elliotte Friedman told the Edmonton radio audience that he thinks the Colorado Avalanche are trying to trade Tyson Barrie. Friedman, whose rumours often prove to be very true—he had the Nikita Zaitsev story—or almost true—he had the Mantas Armalis story half right, he just had the teams wrong—is a source to pay attention to.
A lot of people did pay attention to Friedman, a lot of ears perked up, and a lot of fans want Barrie on their team. They're sure he's an amazing talent, and they know he'll be great.
Really? Are you sure? Because his fancy stats are not good.
No one actually watches the Colorado Avalanche much. Most people who opine on the team have seen a handful of games a year. But everyone knows all about them. They are more famous for the things coach Patrick Roy says than for anything they actually do. They are most famous for the thing they don't do: play with the puck much.
So, given that depth of knowledge, are opinions on Barrie informed by much other than the vague cultural belief that he is talented? Are the assurances that in Barrie's case you should ignore his stats built on anything substantial?
Barrie was selected 64th overall in the third round of the 2009 entry draft. He is a right-shooting defenceman, and he turns 25 this summer, making him nearly the same age as Nikita Zaitsev. He is listed at 5'10" and 190 lbs, which would make him almost exactly Matt Hunwick's size. Barrie's not tall, but a lot of that weight is in a place where it gives you skating power, not upper body power for the pushing and shoving matches.
Barrie only has two full NHL seasons after a nearly full rookie year in 2013-2014. That year the Avs rode a horse named Lucky to the top of their division, and he played all but six games in the NHL. He consistently scores about a dozen goals a year, and in the two years since that one winning year in Denver, his assist totals have skyrocketed making him a 50 point man.
The bigger data view
I assembled some data on NHL defencemen from War on Ice containing the last three regular seasons combined. It is score adjusted, five-on-five only and filters out all players who've played less than 1000 minutes over those years.
Barrie is tenth in points, seventh in points per 60 minutes, and ninth in primary points per 60 minutes on this list. He is seventh in goals per 60 minutes, but if you just look at primary assists per 60 minutes, which we can use as a measure of his passing that leads to scoring, he is only 21st. "Only".
So we don't have to doubt he's good at getting points, one of the best in the NHL on a consistent and improving basis, but to measure that scoring against a known commodity, a Leafs defencemen who is also gifted offensively, I've plotted him head to head with Morgan Rielly.
Starting with total shots for and against or Corsi, we can get an idea about how Barrie affects the whole game, not just the small portion of it when he has the puck in the offensive zone.
Barrie is 164th in Corsi For per 60. Out of 230 defencemen. In Corsi Against per 60, he is 209th. Even in the offensive measure, he is really, really bad, and he is one of the worst defenceman in the league at shot suppression by this measure.
There is a way to account for a player who is on a bad team and may play with poor quality teammates. It has a big long acronym and it measures the shot differentials experienced by your player and weights that by where he is versus an average of his teammates, and you can use that on Barrie and find out he is 57th in that group of defencemen in that period of time. He is the top defenceman on his own team over this period by this measure as well.
So? What does that even mean?
It means he's a good player on a bad team. But we knew that already. Where does that put him on the Dan Girardi to Victor Hedman scale of NHL defencemen? That number is not going to tell you. No single number will.
For that you need context.
You know the Avalanche are bad. You know they get outshot. Let's look at how outshot they are to try to put that truly horrible shot differential performance by Barrie in context.
I took a look at the same three season period, five-on-five data for all the teams, and Colorado is 28th in Corsi For per 60 and 29th in Corsi Against per 60. Remember, included in this period are two years of the Buffalo Sabres being bad on purpose, one year of Toronto doing it plus the New Jersey Devils, who have no offence on purpose all the time. So if you take out the tankers and the Devils, the Avalanche are last in both measures.
That's how bad they are.
So how do you adjust Barrie's shot differentials for that?
Before we try to do that, take a minute to sit and think about how you should look at his points numbers in that context. Are they more amazing or less? Is he just the only guy driving the net or making passes to those star forwards on the Avalanche, or is he offensively gifted to such a degree that in the tiny time he spends near a net, pucks always go in?
There is a school of thought that the one good guy on a bad team looks better than he really is. Is that what is going on here? I'm not sure. I'm not sure if you can answer that question, but it's worth pondering, for example, how much Mark Arcobello scored for Arizona and Edmonton.
Back to shots.
To try to adjust for the Avalanche effect, I tried looking at Ryan O'Reilly, one of the few players who has years of data on the Avalanche, but who plays somewhere else now. The problem is that the somewhere else is Buffalo, and while his rolling average of Corsi percentage started higher and headed up at the start of this past year, it tanked when he was injured late in the season. It hints at things, it doesn't prove them.
Instead, I looked at three players who went the other direction: Blake Comeau, Carl Söderberg and François Beauchemin. They all played for the Avalanche in this past year after arriving from better teams.
Chart from Corsica Hockey. Right click and open in a new tab to see full size.
The Avalanche effect is aptly named. You can also note that Barrie had a terrible year this last season by his standards. He had struggled less in the previous two, putting up numbers that had him almost in the range of those players with the good teams.
When the Avalanche bottomed out and started to improve late in the year, a period of time that coincides with some lineup stability amongst forwards, Barrie bounced a lot higher than Beauchemin. That is the first sign of talent shining through that big, big pile of snow he's buried under.
Barrie has never played as a top pair defenceman beyond a few very short periods when Erik Johnson was hurt. He has, however, played a lot of minutes. In our three year period, his combined five-on-five minutes with Nate Guenin and Nick Holden is within 100 minutes of Erik Johnson's combined time with Jan Hejda and Beauchemin.
It is impossible on the Avalanche to really tell the first forward line from the second, and the same is true of the defensive pairs. What they're called isn't what they do.
I looked at Barrie's deployment by score state for the last three years, and it's changed a lot, further confusing the issue. He used to be totally untrusted if the team had the lead and spent all his time playing when they were behind. His usage in 2014-2015 was high minutes, but mostly while the team was behind, and he played a lot with the bottom six. That year was very peculiar in that he played almost exclusively with the fourth line or the second line.
In 2015-2016, he was trusted more when the team was leading, but when tied, he was the last one to get icetime. However, up or down by one goal were his peak deployments. This isn't dramatically different from how Jake Gardiner was used by Mike Babcock.
A caution when looking at defenceman deployment is that it may be dependant on forward deployment as much as anything else. Babcock absolutely runs specific defence pairs behind specific forward lines on a consistent basis. In 2014-15, Roy avowed that he never chose the defensive deployments at all. The man who did is no longer with the team, so some of the changes may be due to coaching staff changes.
Usage is also about who your defensive partner is.
Nate Guenin, Barrie's partner from 2013 to the start of last year is not on the Girardi-Hedman scale. As difficult as it is to judge a defenceman who plays for the Avalanche, I am confident in saying that Nate Guenin is not an NHL defenceman and there is no team on which he would make the third pairing even if two other guys were hurt. The NHL seems to agree with me. Roy sent him to the AHL, passed him through waivers, and no one bit.
Nick Holden is more complicated. He is mildly gifted offensively, has grown as a player over the years—he is 29 right now—but he is not a guy you would ever expect to crack the top four. Interestingly, Nate Guenin's very minimal strengths—defensive shot blocking and hitting hard—were the areas Barrie is weakest at, and also areas Holden does not excel in. By replacing the very old-fashioned, minimally skilled Guenin with a very pale copy of Barrie himself, Barrie ended up worse at times, often so hemmed in they were the worst players on the ice.
But, like most defencemen, how Barrie does on the ice is largely influenced by which forwards he plays with.
Three Avalanche forwards with big minutes had very, very bad Corsi Against in the most recent year, worse than Barrie's: Nate MacKinnon, Jarome Iginla and Matt Duchene. Two other players were also essentially as bad as Barrie and Holden: Johnson and Beauchemin. All four top defenders were indistinguishably bad this year, Barrie amongst them. The spread he used to maintain from his worst teammates on that metric was gone.
Hockey is a team sport. Defence is a team sport, and the Avalanche are not uniformly bad at it. A look at their forward lines by Corsi For percentage over the years shows a few that have busted the 50% mark. There are a few names that keep cropping up, but once you get to a reasonable sample of minutes played together—I chose 200—only one man consistently delivers close to a 50% chance of finding yourself in the offensive zone shooting the puck:
In our three year period, he leads the team in Corsi For percentage amongst players still on the team, and in Corsi Against per 60 amongst players who didn't spend some time on other teams. He's second only to Nate MacKinnon in Corsi For per 60.
This is our only clue to Barrie's real abilities that I can find in any numbers. This is Barrie in the best possible circumstances he's ever played in. His Corsi For percentage is kissing 50%, his shots against has dropped to what counts as the best you get on this team, and his shots for are better as well. He makes the best forward on the team better. This is over 1000 minutes of play together. The effect with Nate MacKinnon is similar, but playing with Matt Duchene doesn't do Barrie any favours in shots against.
Those golden days when O'Reilly, Landeskog and MacKinnon were the second line and Barrie was usually on the ice with them are gone forever, but they were good times.
Right click and open in a new tab to view full size. The one group over the line is Barrie, Landeskog and O'Reilly.
The Karlsson comparison
For fans who've internalized the Drew Doughty - Erik Karlsson Norris Trophy debates, it's very tempting to assume that the arguments about Karlsson hold for Barrie. His point getting is not quite Karlsson level, but it's really not far off, and Karlsson's team is not dramatically better than the Avalanche.
But what about the rest of their games?
Karlsson's Corsi Against numbers are not great, and it is impossible for them to be given Ottawa's team play, but he is in the middle of the pack of those 230 defenders, not at the wrong end of the list pushing for worst among his peers. His Corsi For is 17th.
To review the state of the Ottawa Senators in the last three years: they are seventh worst in Corsi Against and tenth best in Corsi For, so mediocre to bad, but not desperately terrible.
Karlsson, however, outperforms his team by a large degree in shots against. Barrie is just slightly less bad only some of the time.
The comparison seems to obscure more than inform.
The eye test
Barrie is not like other defencemen in how he plays. His approach to the game makes the Karlsson comparison slightly more valid, but he is even more of a puck handling, shooting, fourth forward than Karlsson is.
I've seen seasoned commentators flummoxed by watching him repeatedly be the first man into the offensive zone with the forwards trailing well behind. Not just the guy who carries the puck across and passes it off, the guy who drives the net like he's the star center on a breakaway.
I've seen opposing teams caught out by that as well. He is fearless in going deep, frequently playing as the deepest member of the team in the offensive zone. But is that part of the problem?One of the Avalanche's biggest weaknesses is maintaining control of the puck in the offensive zone.
It is easy to assume that being outshot means your play is poor in your own zone, but when you're that systemically bad, usually it's everywhere and everybody. Barrie is not making this worse by my eye test. By his stats he's not making it any better than a player like Beauchemin who is tethered to the blueline.
Barrie is good with the puck, not quite as smooth and easy at carrying it as is Zaitsev, but close. He is one of the few defencemen on the Avalanche who can move the puck through the neutral zone effectively. The team system has moved more to having the forwards—MacKinnon and Söderberg—doing that job, but Barrie is reliable.
In his own end Barrie is not a stand out. He is not great at winning board battles; he is not the stick in lane master of the slot; he is down there blocking shots with the rest of them, but that is not his element. He has speed, and he has puck control.
It's a serious and legitimate question to ask if Barrie is a forward who only pretends to be a defenceman.
My answer is yes and no. He is that, except for how moving the puck up, passing into scoring areas, shooting, scoring are all defensive jobs that many people fail to think of in that way. He is not the man you want in your own end when it's all gone to hell. He is the man you want as soon as you're moving out.
If that sounds like Morgan Rielly more than Erik Karlsson, it's because that's the more apt comparison. Their stats line up closer on all metrics away from the goals and assists—and to be fair to Rielly, I don't think he's had forwards of quite the same calibre that Barrie gets to hand the puck off to.
One way to examine how a defender behaves defensively, is to look at what proportion of his shots against are high-danger scoring chances. This is the metric that Shea Weber and Roman Josi win in my table of defenders, so it seems like this is team based as well, as you should expect. Barrie doesn't do so bad on this one, finishing at 45th. From the bottom! Come on, he's not suddenly a savant. But that is better than in the bottom twenty.
By this measure, Barrie is better than Morgan Rielly, and he's not much worse than Karlsson. The idea behind looking at this subset of shots is to catch the guys with good Corsi, but who are hopeless defensively when they are actually defending. Barrie, trying to mentally fudge it for the Avalanche effect, the opposite of the Predator effect, seems not so bad here.
The best guess I can get out of this is if you picked up Barrie and placed him next to Jake Gardiner on Mike Babcock's Leafs his scoring might actually go down. Babcock is a lower risk coach than Patrick Roy (nearly everyone is). Barrie's shots for should go up, but, would his shots against go down? And would they go down enough to make him fit on a tightly run team like the Leafs?
I'm confident he'd be better than Dion Phaneuf! We would have to run the experiment to know for sure.
Is he better than Rielly though? In more than scoring, that is. That I'm not sure of.
I had a revelation at the World Championships that has made me more optimistic, not just of Barrie, but of Rielly. Two players on Team Canada were astonishingly good: Rielly, and Duchene. I have never seen Duchene play that well, all over the ice, with and without the puck. I have never seen Rielly play a non-offensively focused game with such confidence and skill.
For Rielly, I think the explanation might be being able to relax with so much firepower in front of him, and he was genuinely brilliant in the gold medal game, a game that was won by defence. Duchene, I don't know. He's been in four other World Championships and he's never played like that. If that is in him, what then is in Barrie?
I think the question is clear. If Barrie is not substantially better than the bird in the hand in Rielly, why are you paying more for him? And I think it's fair to assume he will cost more, both in terms of what a team has to give up in trade for him, and what he'll need to be paid. So if he's slotting in ahead of Rielly long term, he needs to be worth it.
The bird in the hand might really be worth much more in this case. He is a right-handed bird, though, that one in the bush. There is that to consider.