Tyson Barrie and defenseman talent evaluation (Trending Topics)

Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Tyson Barrie drama in Colorado is now over, at least for now.

Last Sunday, the Avalanche gave him a four-year deal worth $22 million ($5.5 million AAV), which will keep him under team control through just his age-28 season. In signing the deal, Barrie also becomes the second-highest-paid defender on the team, behind only Erik Johnson, who’s signed through 2023 at a $6 million AAV.

Now, there is of course nothing to say the Avs don’t give him the Ryan O’Reilly treatment, signing him to a pricy contract and then trading him at some point down the road. In 2014-15, O’Reilly played the first year of a two-year deal that helped him avoid arbitration, and got shipped out the next summer. This time, both sides went through arbitration and knocked down that $5.5 million price point for four years, something of a mid-range between going long-term and keeping things short.

And honestly, it seems like a good deal for all involved. Again, maybe the Avs kick the tires a bit here and then decide they’d rather trade Barrie than keep him at that price, but the money’s about right in terms of what he brings to the ice, and the term leaves Barrie another chance to cash in with a potentially even bigger contract before his 29th birthday (he only turned 25 on July 26). If they’d have gone longer on the deal, that might have limited some of Barrie’s earning power when he hit UFA status for the first time in, say, his early 30s.

But one interesting thing to note here is that the Avs seem to have signed this deal with the understanding that Barrie would get a bigger role in the team. Barrie told the Denver Post that he wants to become more than just an offensive defenseman. “But I want to be relied upon to play against the top lines every night and not just be the guy who goes out when you need a goal. That’s something we’re going to work on, and I think I’m getting better at it,” he said.

He echoed that sentiment in an interview a few days later on TSN 1040 in Vancouver, saying that what the Avs presented as their anti-Barrie-getting-paid case in arbitration was, “Obviously good on the power play, but I’m a smaller guy and defense is part of my job. So they wanted to remind me.”

It’s easy to forget that Barrie is only about 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, but that thing about “obviously good on the power play” is a point well taken. He’s racked up 102 points in his last 158 games. Clearing the century mark over the last two years is something only six other defenders have done during that time. And wouldn’t you know it, all are most GMs teams would kick their own grandmothers down the stairs to acquire: Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Kris Letang, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, and Mark Giordano are the others.

It’s not really surprising, then, that Barrie hears the same type of no-defense criticisms faced by Karlsson, Letang, and Subban. All are under 6-foot-1, and all are relied upon in somewhat specialized situations, which is to say that coaches don’t often let them kill penalties because it’s not really the best allocation of their minutes. Giordano, Josi, and Burns fall into a different category, though one might argue that Josi is closer to the “no-defense” group than the other two. In theory, he’s at least had Shea Weber to fall back on when it comes to shoring up the own-zone play.

If you look at a two-year usage chart, it comes as no surprise that Barrie played marginally softer competition and got more favorable zone deployment than, say, Johnson and Francois Beauchemin. And it’s also no surprise, because of who the coach is and the system the team played, even the best regular defensemen came in with possession shares south of 46 percent. The fact that Barrie came in third among regulars (only Johnson and Zach Redmond, a third-pairing guy who got even more favorable deployment, were ahead of him) really shouldn’t be a surprise either.

But what’s interesting is that for a no-defense defender Barrie had a heck of a depressive effect on opponents’ offenses. Again, you can argue he didn’t play the toughest minutes, but he allowed the second-fewest adjusted shot attempts per 60 minutes on the team over a two-year period (behind only Redmond), and he had a relatively average expected-goals against number as well, which indicates both shot suppression and, to some extent, shot-quality suppression. Part of the reason people probably perceive him as having lesser defensive awareness, I think, is the fact that over the last two seasons he’s had the second-lowest save percentage behind him of any Avs defender. The only one worse off was Jan Hejda. Consequently, Barrie also has the second-worst goals against per 60, so it doesn’t matter to the Avs that his goals-for demolishes nearly all his other teammates.

This is, I think, where the difference between “results” and “process” comes into play. The club sees Barrie get scored on more often and concludes, “He is weak defensively.” It seems the team score far more goals when he’s on the ice and concludes, “This is because he is a one-dimensional player.” This thinking should have died out years ago, in hockey’s version of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event; the vast majority of teams got smarter two or three years ago, but the Avs (and a few others, for that matter) stubbornly did not.

Whether the Avs actually buy into the efficacy of underlying numbers and so on doesn’t really seem to be up for debate any more. But if that data routinely shows Barrie was undervalued, and the more standard statistics say there are few players like him in the world, that should at least provide a spark of added critical thought, shouldn’t it? It’s weird to see someone sign a $22 million, four-year “prove-it” contract, but that’s kind of how I take this deal. If it doesn’t work out this season, the Avs can trade him to someone who appreciates his corsi-ness and maybe get some valuable pieces back. It worked with O’Reilly, right?

This is not to say that Barrie’s defensive game couldn’t use some work — that’s true of basically any player in the league save for an elite few — but the idea in hockey is to have the puck more than your opponent so that, ultimately, you score more than your opponent. Pretty simple, really. And Barrie does that, defensive deficiencies or not. If what he does better than almost any other defenseman on the team is get the puck into the attacking zone, you can perhaps chalk that up to being the result of weaker competition than what Johnson faces. But if you think he’s a weak defender, maybe that doesn’t matter as much since he’s in his own zone less than almost anyone else you send over the boards.

Again, it’s understandable why a team would look at higher goals-against totals and say, “Well that’s Barrie for you,” but to not investigate the “why” of it more deeply than pronouncing it a problem that needs fixing doesn’t make a ton of sense.

That he’ll apparently be tested more often this year is a good thing. Because proceedings have generally gone better-than-team-average with him on the ice, smart coaches might use that as a clue that he can perhaps handle more than he’s been given. If he’s outperforming others in specialized situations, the broader role he’s apparently going to be given this coming season makes sense (though I would argue it’s being given to him for the wrong reasons).

That is to say even if you think Barrie is a power-play-specialist who can’t be trusted in his own zone, throwing him into the deep end of the pool is a good way to test that theory. The numbers indicate he’s probably more than up for the job.

If it doesn’t work, the impact of an extra quarter of a goal against over 60 minutes (or whatever the number happens to be) is going to be minimal, but you’ve learned exactly what you have. He’ll continue to be an elite scoring defenseman and power play quarterback if nothing else, and that’s certainly not nothing. Again, the vast majority of GMs in this league would love to have that problem.

And if it does work, well, you’ve just found yourself a new top-pairing defenseman. I mean, sure, you had him all along, but it’s better to find out late than not at all.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.