Originally published in July, 2019, this post was republished as part of Retro May in 2020.
Everyone is pumped up about the trade that finally brought a famous and experienced top-four, right-shooting defender to the Maple Leafs. But is this a sunshine and roses deal? Or are there a lot of thorns in the bouquet?
Alexander Kerfoot is not Nazem Kadri
This is the obvious one. Kerfoot is a modestly gifted player who generates a lot more excitement with his defensive numbers than his offensive, once you dig past the boxcars. He had a 25% shooting percentage at five-on-five his first season in the NHL (he’s played two so far) which might have led a lot of gullible people to think he was an offensive dynamo the Devils had discovered in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. (Kerfoot was an NCAA player who waited out the Devils rights and then signed with the Avalanche as a free agent.) Last year, Kerfoot’s shooting percentage regressed, as they do, and that dream died.
The story that he’s a hot property on the power play persists.
I like that, it’s nice. The heatmap shows the power play as Kerfoot experiences it, and the purple colour is the big blob of shots that come at an above league-average rate. They’re in the spot you want to see them. The +5% is the measure of his impact. It’s nice.
Nazem Kadri is not nice. And he’s a true dominant force on the power play, so don’t tell me the college boy has got this. Clearly, the unit Kadri plays on is better than who Kerfoot has been on the ice with, but Kadri’s +31% says he’s a key reason why.
In his two NHL seasons, Kerfoot has shot at 23% and 29% on the power play. Over the last three years, he is 10th in the NHL for power play shooting percentage for players with over 200 minutes played. You need to believe he’s Brayden Point- or Elias Pettersson-level good to buy that that’s real. I don’t believe that that’s real. I don’t even believe Pettersson’s single-season results are real.
As a centre, Kerfoot is green as grass in the NHL, and what he’s got going for him is some defensive results that look promising over two nearly full seasons. What he isn’t is a top-line centre hiding on the third line. A line helmed by Kerfoot, even if he gets a really hot pair of wingers, is more of a checking line, not a scoring line, and when they are in the offensive zone, he is not much of a help. He’s not Frederik Gauthier, but he’s also not Nazem Kadri, the man who makes those gorgeous passes that are perfectly timed, perfectly placed and result in goals.
Kerfoot might be young, if he signs for more than one year, he might be a cost-controlled bargain, but he sure isn’t Kadri.
Tyson Barrie is Morgan Rielly’s Long-lost Twin
Tyson Barrie is famous, and he absolutely does play top four minutes and is an upgrade over Ron Hainsey at five-on-five and Jake Muzzin on the power play, but he is the man you picture when you hear the word “dwinger”. Everything he does on the ice is focused on scoring, and it’s not like that’s a bad thing, but he can be prone to leaving the defending to others.
There is no defence there. And Barrie’s offence is actually suspect. That’s a ridiculous thing to say about a defenceman who has nearly 60 points in each of his last two seasons, isn’t it?
No, it isn’t.
Almost half of Barrie’s points come on the power play, and at five-on-five, he is, as a defender who doesn’t actually score a lot of goals*, at the mercy of his on-ice shooting percentage for points. His most frequent teammates over the last three years are Nate MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. You may know them as one of the best lines in hockey, a line more terrifying than the John Tavares line was last season. Barrie’s had some good luck in the shooting percentage numbers with those guys. It’s not like Kerfoot’s inflated season, but he’s out there with three men who can provide you with buckets of assists.
*Last year, Barrie had a very interesting single-season of heavy personal goal scoring on an even heavier shot volume that makes analyzing him a bit confusing. For more depth on that issue, try the podcast:
Barrie shoots the puck like a forward, and his career shooting percentage is in this grey area of good for a defender/bad for a forward that makes you wonder if he should just pass more. He keeps getting points, though. But it’s possible to see that the way the Colorado Avalanche played with him on the ice wasn’t the most efficient way to get the most goals. Hockey is a most goals competition when you’re a defenceless team like the Leafs.
If his points thrill you, just know that they aren’t the measure of the man himself, but of him and his teammates, and he’s had the best. Notice that his Expected Goals For in the RAPM chart is below league average. If you believe in points as the true measure of a player, you’ll love him. Oh, and remember that those same three dynamic players are on the power play with him.
Three years ago, I wrote a long article about Barrie when the Leafs were rumoured to be interested in him.
I concluded then, long before Rielly showed his true brilliance offensively and when both had been toiling on bad teams with worse coaches, that Barrie might not be even as good as Rielly. Barrie was horrible in terms of shot differential then. Since then Barrie has enjoyed a vastly improved team around him, but he’s still who he is, and who he is, is at best, more of the same of what you get with Rielly. Maybe it’s less of the same, though.
Tyson Barrie is a Rental
This is both a mitigation of the previous complaint and a new one, but I’m not in the mitigation business today. Barrie is an expiring UFA that the Leafs can only afford because Colorado retained the max salary in the trade. He’s going to get paid huge money next summer, and the Leafs won’t be in the running to sign him.
This trade isn’t even Kadri for Barrie, it’s Kadri for Kerfoot and the rental plus the cost of the retained salary. It’s Kerfoot who will hang around, hopefully. It’s Kerfoot who will have to be a player in the top nine for years to make this deal worth it.
Alexander Kerfoot is Not a Prospect
The rationale behind trading Kadri is not just that you can get a haul for him, it’s that he’s aging towards his declining years. Kadri is 29 this fall, so a noticeable drop in effectiveness is still years off, but it’s coming.
Kerfoot is only four years younger. He’s not a kid; he’s not a prospect, and those years spent playing NCAA hockey and getting a Harvard degree age you only more gently than an NHL career that starts at 18 does. Kerfoot turns 25 this summer. He’s at his peak entering his third year in the NHL, and expecting a lot of growth is likely foolish.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are looking up at the biggest part of the steep incline of an aging curve, while Kerfoot is surfing along at his natural level. And when that power play shooting percentage regresses, he’s going to start looking like who he really is, a peripheral player of value as a centre, but not in the class of Kadri.
This is a step down.
Alexander Kerfoot has Arbitration Rights
This is not a trade for a player, but for a player’s rights. Kerfoot is an RFA with arbitration rights, and if he elects arbitration, as Darren Dreger says he will, he will get something in the range of Kapanen money. That’s less than Kadri, for sure, but so it should be.
Rolling off of two seasons of 43 and 42 points, his arbitration hearing would be a test of the ability of the Leafs to make the sorts of arguments using modern analysis that will whittle an arbitration award down into the tolerable range. The best case is that Kerfoot signs to term now, but he might not feel the same motivation to put on a YYZ shirt and tell the press how much he loves Toronto. He’s from Vancouver, after all.
The Big Picture
Kerfoot might be better defensively than Kadri, whose prowess as a shutdown centre is a 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.