Identity Pt 3: The Defense

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Is it just me or did Tyson Barrie talk more about his next contract than he did about wanting to help the team win all year long? 

I can assure you he talked about himself more than the team in general terms. How a coaching switch from Mike Babcock to Sheldon Keefe changed things for him. Not the team. For him. He didn’t speak about how the team has a real shot at the Stanley Cup if they just play hard for their new coach. No. He spoke about how his offense was picking up now that Babcock was gone. 

He touched on how the COVID19 pandemic has changed things as he heads into free agency and how you work your entire life for the opportunity to be a free agent (???….. his words, not mine) and then it looks like this. Oh, poor Barrie, how will he demand 8M a year now?

He also spoke about how being traded was tough on him, how he didn’t feel comfortable with the new scenery, and how adjusting was more difficult than he thought it would be. He gave props to guys that get traded. It’s amazing how they adjust so quickly….apparently. 

He talked a lot. Yet I didn’t hear much about wanting to win more. 

But don’t worry, he set himself up nicely for free agency by overcoming all of those obstacles and giving his all for the group. The culmination of his Leafs playoff hockey looked like this: 

  • 5 play-in games played (play-in, playoff, the intensity should have been there either way)
  • 0pts
  • -2 rating
  • 7 SOG
  • 76.9% of his shifts started in the offensive zone, because the coach trusted him.
  • 1 hit
  • 1 blocked shot 

I can almost forgive the 1 hit. Not all players are physical. The 0pts, not the end of the world if the rest of the team is burying some chances, but they weren’t. The high OZ start percentage makes sense, he’s expected to produce offense so you start him where he has the best chance to help on the scoresheet. He didn’t help on the scoresheet. Collectively it’s a terrible group of numbers but there’s one above all else that I can’t forgive.

Tyson Barrie blocked a single shot over a 5 game stretch of playoff games. 

One single shot block. 

In a playoff round. 


Where’s the intensity? The will to win? The passion? 

What a perfect fit on a team of selfish slugs this high powered offensive weapon was. 

I’m ecstatic at the thought of who Kyle Dubas will find to take his place. Will he be half the defender Barrie was!?! Oh joy!! I can hardly contain my enthusiasm!! 

Lets face it, while most of Leaf Nation is daydreaming about the addition of a free agent like Alex Pietrangelo, Kyle Dubas probably fainted from excitement when he found out the Pittsburgh Penguins will let Justin Schultz walk into free agency. 

There’s been a disconnect like that between management and fans. The fans, as a collective, have voted in favour of more size, grit, and drive in the lineup for a long time now. 

Management has provided us, for the most part, with Tyson Barrie, Denis Malgin, Alex Kerfoot, Cody Ceci, and Jason Spezza. 

Then there’s Kyle Clifford. The only addition to the roster this year that made you think the team desires some type of physical play. 

If you’ve read the entirety of this “Identity” series you’d know that it’s my opinion that a single player won’t change a thing. Poor Kyle Clifford was on an island and needed help.

So, with that in mind, and knowing full well that I picked on Tyson Barrie this entire time and didn’t bother to mention how bad the rest of the defensive group was (but Barrie was just that bad and was the biggest piece added!! SO bad!!), I’ll run through some players that I think the team could add to the blueline in order to start changing the culture of this team: 

Rasmus Ristolainen

Ristolainen is similar to Jake Gardiner in the sense that he is a polarizing player. Fans either love him or hate him, and it really depends on what numbers you look at. 

At face value his offensive contributions, physical play and all-situations minutes (over 2 minutes per game short handed and with the man advantage) suggest a player that coaches trust. 

When you get into more advanced numbers you get the story of a player that is terrible at shot suppression and is regularly behind on shot attempts. 

So, in short, he’s similar to Jake Gardiner in the sense that he is a polarizing player, but he is essentially the anti-Gardiner in the sense that Gardiners underlying numbers suggested he was a defensive rock, while the eye test said otherwise. Ristolainen looks pretty good and has always gotten tough matchups, but his underlying numbers suggest he’s a terrible defensive option. 

I, for one, like his combination of size, physical play, offensive ability, and his ability to start shifts in his own end (just 47% of his shifts start in the OZ). 

I’ll make a prediction here. 

Whichever team eventually ends up with Rasmus Ristolainen (and another team will, he has been on the trade block for years), will get a steal of a deal. Especially if that team plays a defensive style of game. Getting the matchups he has, while playing for a terrible Sabres team, has diminished his value. There’s high upside here. 

Andy Greene

Andy Greene isn’t about to solve the Leafs top 4 defensive issues. However, that’s not exactly what this is all about. 

What Greene would do is add a very respected veteran to a group that needs a defensive, not offensive, boost. 

Veteran leadership, the ability to play on the penalty kill, and the ability to play the left or right side is what makes Greene a great option for this team. 

He’ll be 38 years old by the time next season starts and if his current team, the New York Islanders, fail to win the Stanley Cup you know he’ll be hungry to get his name on the ultimate prize. He went all the way to the finals with New Jersey in 2012 but came up short. 

That type of hunger may be just what the doctor ordered, and would go a long way towards changing the toxic culture this team is currently cultivating. 

Mark Borowiecki

Borocop!! A physical leader with a few miles left on his body. 

He hits, he blocks shots, he kills penalties, and he looks out for his teammates. 

He also shoots left, which isn’t the side of the ice the Leafs need help on, but we’ll overlook that little tidbit if it means adding a Kyle Clifford to the back end. 

Besides, any player that would sit down for a fake interview with their laughing stock owner, Eugene Melnyk, to try to change the fans’ view of the organization has to have a team first mentality. 

This guy cares about the jersey he wears, and that’s the exact thing the Leafs lack. 

Dustin Bufuglien

Does anybody know what kind of physical condition Big Buff is in these days? He hasn’t played hockey in over a year, and his career is likely over. 

He probably resembles Jabba the Hutt more than a professional athlete right now. 

This is why he’d need to be invited to camp on a professional tryout, if possible. 

I don’t think it will be possible. I think a team will offer him a contract and hope for the best, but if not, and if he wants to try to play again, I think the Leafs should be the team that rolls out the red carpet for him. 

His play on the ice has spoken for itself. He’s big and plays a physical game, he can play all situations, and he can keep up with a fast team. All great things. 

He has long been considered a team first type of guy as well. A leader on and off the ice. 

That was until he left Winnipeg in the lurch. 

It’s still unclear exactly what happened there, so I’ll brush past it in order to make a point. 

This is the player that once threw Evander Kanes jump suit into the shower and turned the shower on after Kane showed up to the arena wearing that jump suit instead of a suit, which was a violation of the teams dress code. 

In other words if you step out of line Big Buff will let you know. 

That type of presence on and off the ice would be a welcome addition to the group, even if his ability doesn’t surpass that of a 3rd pair or depth defender anymore. 

Honourable Mentions 

Those are just a few of the defenders I’d like to see the Leafs add this offseason. Keep in mind I’m talking about players that have the ability to change the culture as well as the on-ice product. There are many players that could help the Leafs moving forward such as Chris Tanev, Travis Hamonic, Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Josh Manson, Dylan Demelo, Radko Gudas, MacKenzie Weeger, and Niklas Hjalmarsson, but I wanted to point out a few examples of players that combine their play with leadership qualities and a team first mentality. It’s that, above all else, that I believe is missing from the team. I simply don’t believe adding players like Tyson Barrie will ever get this group to another level. His time in a Leaf jersey was forgettable because he never wanted to wear it in the first place. He spent his time here thinking about what team he’ll play for next and that’s not what any team wants. 

I’ll be happy to see that type of personality removed from the dressing room, and if Kyle Dubas can replace him with a passionate player I just might stop writing these pessimistic articles.