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Revisiting a contrarian take on the Kadri-Barrie trade

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Today’s Retro May post is a fresh look back at the Kadri trade.

Colorado Avalanche v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

In July, 2019, I posted a deeply contrarian take on the trade that swapped Nazem Kadri for Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot.

It’s not a sober reasoned opinion. It’s not even a cautionary tale about not getting hopes up. It’s total negativity, and it was a bit of a pose, a persona. My most pessimistic view allowed out to play with no tempering. I even said at one point that I was intentionally leaving out mitigating facts.

Why That Trade?

I wasn’t trying to say the trade was bad and Kyle Dubas shouldn’t have made it. I was trying to say that it shouldn’t make anyone happy. That trade was, as much as the Patrick Marleau deal that cost the first-round pick, a necessary pain. I was hardly likely to say that the Maple Leafs should have kept Kadri, since I’d been speculating for years — to a chorus of upset disapproval — that he would have to go. And not because of suspensions or his occasionally poor five-on-five performance or entire seasons where his personal offence dried up. Kadri was doomed the minute John Tavares signed on.

For a detailed look at why the moves happened last year (before some of them did) check out this post that looks at the efficiency of contracts by comparing the cap hit to value:

There is a weird retcon popular now that claims that Kadri was traded because Mike Babcock refused to play him at wing. This seems to be a fanciful tale created out of the Avalanche’s willingness to use Kadri at wing while they were down key players due to injury. He snapped back to 2C when they had more options, because it would be silly to take a centre of his talents and play him anywhere else. The Avalanche have a very different team structure, quality of depth and usage scheme to the Leafs. The story also fails the sniff test when you actually add up the cap hits and discover there wasn’t a spare bunch of millions to add a defenceman and a third-line centre and keep Kadri on the team.

Nazem Kadri was, through no fault of his own, the most inefficient use of cap space once Marleau, Brown and Zaitsev were off the team. He was the logical next man off the roster as new deals for Matthews, Marner and Nylander ate up the space. And there was a time when no one would complain about a player heading for 30 getting shifted out for younger talent. But the Leafs are a more complex beast now, and Kadri was the first major trade of a player who was good, very good even, added value to the team, wasn’t overpaid and still had years on his contract.

The Kadri trade was a sign the team had grown beyond rebuilding and into the very difficult phase of managing the roster turnover while trying to contend every year. The deal wasn’t anything like the Kessel trade, and the point wasn’t just the return. For the Leafs making that trade work and managing the cap in general is a problem made harder by the undeniable fact that they have a poor quality defence corps overall.

If Kadri was moved because his cap hit was too big for a 3C, and his value as a trade chip was too high to keep him as a winger over an actual winger, judging the deal has to take into account that the main goal was accomplished. But that’s about all that was positive about the deal. Judged as a trade, a swap of players, it looks less than glorious, which still doesn’t mean it was a bad deal.

When I reread my intentionally dour take now, I’m surprised at how accurate it turned out.

Kerfoot might be better defensively than Kadri, whose prowess as a shutdown centre is often overstated, but he can’t match his offence, and anything he adds to the team on the defensive side of the equation is eaten up by Tyson Barrie. And if Barrie’s actual offensive contribution is as suspect as it seem, it doesn’t even the score, not quite.

The team isn’t better. It might be more balanced, with a player in Barrie who brings skills that are sorely lacking on defence, and will also, incidentally, cut into the minutes the Leafs have to play Cody Ceci, but overall, even that isn’t going to make the team more than just as good as they were before this trade, at least not by shot metrics.

If the new power play, without Jake Muzzin having to fake it on the second unit, really clicks, and Kerfoot fits in perfectly and can helm a successful checking line, even if he never plays against top lines, the whole thing might gel. The team might settle into at least as effective a group as they were last season when Jake Gardiner was on IR. That’s the best case.

The law of conservation of assets is still in effect, and you can’t create something out of nothing in the NHL very often. The Leafs split Nazem Kadri into pieces and slotted them in two different places, but the sum of all the parts is the same.

Now we get to take this experiment in rebalancing a lineup out on the ice and see what happens in the real world.

Kerfoot’s Season

Kerfoot shouldn’t be judged on total points vs Kadri, but he has been, he will be, and he will so obviously disappoint you if you do it, I have to see that as the desired outcome for anyone who indulges in it. It’s an instant grievance — no need to even add water.

Kadri also had a fabulous year this season, playing in a setup that played to his strengths in every way. But if you like raw points stats, and you are willing to go so far as to look at five-on-five scoring only because no one ever said Kerfoot could touch Kadri on the power play, you get the delightful result of a tie at 25 points each. Kadri played less, scored more goals, and is absolutely better, but the meme that Kerfoot was bad fails the first, most simple test.

To use a blunt force comparison of impact, I’m going to just look at the GAR breakdown from Evolving Hockey between the two players this season. It’s not a measure of “who is better”, it’s a measure of who added how much to their teams this year. Kadri has a GAR of 12.1 to Kerfoot’s 6.4, but the individual components break out like this:

  • Even Strength Offence: 8.7 to 7.5 Kadri over Kerfoot
  • Even Strength Defence: -0.7 to -0.3
  • Power Play: 4.8 to 0
  • Penalties Taken: -1.8 to -0.6
  • Penalties Drawn: 1 to -0.2

Those two penalty numbers net out for both players to -0.8 (another tie) or a bit of detriment to their teams, but not one to get too upset over. They sit at just over 50th (worst) out of 558 forwards by that measure. Their defensive impact is just over the wrong side of the median for all forwards, and that fits with the idea that Kadri the checking line centre is a miscasting. The major difference between them was power play impact.

Kerfoot’s performance on the Leafs actually came very close to his best case scenario, and by signing a reasonable, but not discounted term deal, he erased more of my complaints about that trade than anyone else. As the secondary goal of finding a good enough 3C, the trade has to be seen as a success. Sheldon’s Keefe experimentation with playing Kerfoot anywhere but 3C is somewhat beside the point here. And eventually even he will realize that Jason Spezza makes a nice substitute when a top-six winger is hurt, but Pierre Engvall is not getting that job long term. If the second unit power play hadn’t been hellishly bad, we might have a much different view of Kerfoot now.

Tyson Barrie’s Season

Tyson Barrie only fit under the cap because the deal included full retained salary. I called him a rental at the time, and I stand by that. Would the Leafs have been interested in re-signing him this offseason if he’d proved to be stellar and worth the ~$9 million he’ll ask for in free agency? Yeah, sure. But the cost would have been Jake Muzzin and at least one secondary winger. It would have felt like trading for him twice. So he would have needed to be The One. He’s not.

He did keep Ceci from having to be played too much, but at the risk of retelling a joke that was only funny the first time, their impact on the team is barely different.

At the pause, Barrie had enough offensive punch to put his GAR stats over Ceci’s by one and a fraction goals, but he was actually so much worse defensively that even if he’d had a more typical year offensively, he’d still have been only of minor value. Barrie’s power play contributions were also negligible. He doesn’t hurt your power play, and it was good to have him when Morgan Rielly was hurt, but he should be seen only ever as a number two unit player. His reputation as a power play quarterback of great prowess is undeserved in my opinion.

Note: this Travis Yost piece looks at power plays with defenders who don’t shoot much, and it’s worth reconsidering that opinion now, given how low Barrie’s shot rate was on the Leafs (on the power play). Models may underrate his contributions because they often can’t account for the things a player doesn’t do.

Barrie is going to make Pandemic-depressed millions somewhere, and he won’t be terrible, but he will be overpaid because most players who go to UFA with any kind of fame attached to their names are overpaid. Barrie’s deal will be a very inefficient use of cap space, which brings us right back to Kadri and the reasons he was traded in the first place.

Conclusion

A raw GAR calculation says the trade made the team a little worse in 2019-2020, but that is wholly encompassed by Kadri’s power play performance. At five-on-five the entire deal was a wash.

Next season, with a 30-year-old Kadri’s $4.5 million for two years turned into a 26-year-old Kerfoot with $3.5 million for three years, it will be easier to see the incremental gain, and how true that “law of conservation of assets” is when you factor in rising salaries. The rest of Kadri’s cap hit was already eaten up by Tavares or Marner or whoever you want to blame for taking it away. The Barrie rental was just a bonus. The second player in the trade that split Kadri in two was always already on the team.

It was the right move to trade Kadri. Kerfoot is exactly the sort of return the team needed, and the trade is still not one that should make anyone happy. It’s not the last trade of this sort the Leafs will be making. Once this season is over for real, the free agents are gone, and the cap ceiling is known, the quest will be on to find the most inefficient contracts and start the stopwatch on those trades. They won’t make us happy either.