When you put a player with something to prove in a situation where he has a better than reasonable opportunity of doing it – especially when he’s playing for a new contract – you’ve set the table for the possibility of a big, big season.
That’s the situation defenceman Tyson Barrie finds himself in with the Edmonton Oilers, and I won’t be a bit surprised if that’s exactly what we see from him. Signed to one-year, look-see contract worth $3.75 million by GM Ken Holland in October, Barrie arrives with a blend of skills coach Dave Tippett needs in his blueline corps.
Barrie, 29, has earned his keep in the 554 NHL games he’s played since breaking in with the Colorado Avalanche in 2011-12 by being able to move the puck from the back end, jump up into the play when the opportunity presents itself and run a power play. Guys like him don’t grow on trees, and when you find one of them at this price point when they’re not well past their prime, you’re on to something. That’s even more true because Holland managed to get Barrie after losing Oscar Klefbom for the season.
You can count the defencemen the Oilers have had with Barrie’s skillset and offensive acumen in the last two decades on one hand. Barrie will step in on Tippett’s right side with a career mark of .62 PPG. He’s managed that without having two guys named Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to play with. He’ll operate a power play that was the NHL’s best last season. This, after a tough go in Toronto until the Maple Leafs jettisoned Mike Babcock.
THE RIGHT FIT
“Signing here was a no-brainer,” Barrie told Mark Spector of Sportsnet. “I hope I can come in, be a part of the offence and get the puck moving, work the powerplay, join the rush . . . and hopefully bring a little bit of leadership. You know, I’ve been through a bit in my career. Gone through some playoff rounds and such. I think it will be a good fit.”
After 484 games in eight seasons with Colorado, Barrie never really found that fit in Toronto, at least while Babcock was running the show before Sheldon Keefe took over. Barrie had a bad start to the season. Even with the shackles on under Babcock, Barrie finished with 5-34-39 in 70 games, not exactly chopped liver when you consider his power-play production dropped to 1-11-12 after back-to-back seasons of 25 and 30 PP points in Denver.
“I’d never been off to a start like that: no goals, seven assists in 25 games.,” Barrie said. “Our team was floating around .500, and it just felt like a lot of pressure. You know, more pressure than I’d dealt with in Colorado. I was just trying to be honest with myself, and let people know that I expected more from myself.”
Barrie had seasons of 53, 49, 57 and 59 points during his tenure in the Mile High City. His 57 points, including 30 (7-23-30) on the power play, in just 68 games in 2017-18 saw him produce at a career-high .84 PPG clip. He arrives here having averaged 21:47 in ice time per game, so he can play minutes.
“I’m a big fan of his,” said Tippett, who’ll likely have Barrie paired with Kris Russell at even strength. “I have high expectations for him. I think he’ll come in and he’ll give our power play a little different look with the right-shot . . . Barrie is really creative. Looking forward to see how he meshes with the other guys.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Barrie has spent much of his career dealing with varying degrees of criticism about his defensive play. Fair comment, I suppose, but accurate? “The way that my style of game is, and the size that I am, I’m always going to fight that stereotype,” he said. “But I’ve line-matched against top lines for large periods of a season, in playoffs. I know I can do it. I’ve got to stay focused on it and commit to that part of the game.”
We’ll find out over the next 56 games how that plays out. The way I see it, Barrie brings exactly what the Oilers need in their blueline mix. I expect the power play to be terrific again, but what I can’t wait to see is the Oilers’ transition game with Barrie moving the rubber from the back end with McDavid and Draisaitl up front at even strength. That’s where the biggest improvement is needed. Looks like a match to me.