The Avs cruised into the All-Star Break on a high after the win streak brought them back to contention for a playoff spot. Several big changes happened right after at the game in Vancouver, Tyson Barrie returned to the lineup from a broken hand and Nathan MacKinnon injured his shoulder midway through. They managed to grab a point for each game this week, which is actually better than their season average on the road but not at the 1.19 points per game they averaged overall that got them in the playoff picture. Let’s take a look at the effects, both subtle and obvious, of these two situations.
Since Mid-November Mack has put this team on his back and bullrushed them back into relevancy. Losing your best player for any length of time is devastating for any team so the goal isn’t to replace him, it’s to minimize the damage while he’s out. The Avs have scored 164 goals this season and Mack scored or assisted on 37% of them. That doesn’t say that they will inevitably go from 3¼ per game to barely over 2 (where they were last year), there is capacity to make up for some of that loss. They just need to tap into it.
The net effect was trading Mack for Dominic Toninato, which sounds troubling, but in reality they traded Mack for Alexander Kerfoot on the first line and got a new 4th line center. Kerf has a 2.22 points per 60 rate at 5v5 playing with talent not quite at the level of Gabe Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. Mack’s P/60 is at 3.27. Strangely enough Kerf’s P/60 on the power play is slightly higher than Mack’s (6.3 to 6.23) so the loss there might not be much of a loss at all.
What we do lose with that swap is shot generation. Mack is both a massive shot generator and creates assists. Kerfoot doesn’t shoot much, although he is very efficient when he does. Mack’s iCF/60 is a whopping 16.15 and his expected goals per 60 is 0.79, both tops on the team by a mile. Kerf has an iCF/60 of only 6.65 and xGF/60 of 0.47. He’s not going to score the Avs back to pre-ASG levels so the onus falls on Landy and especially Mikko to alter their game and become more shooty.
One subtly negative effect is that the Soderberg line has become the top line by time on ice in the past 2 games. I understand completely that the staff aren’t going to have the same confidence putting a rookie center out for top line minutes as with a true #1C, but putting Carl and Comeau out there isn’t going to help win games either. Here are some aggregate rate totals for comparison:
Soderberg/Comeau/Nieto – iCF/60: 30.53, P/60: 3.98, ixGF/60: 0.92
Kerfoot/Rantanen/Landeskog – iCF/60: 28.05, P/60 6.43, ixGF/60: 0.96
While Carl’s line generates slightly more shot attempts and Kerf’s generates slightly more quality, the points are a big discrepancy. Over time this will not pay off. Keep in mind aggregating stats like this produces meaningless numbers, it’s the stats relative to each other we’re looking at. Individually, the guys on the Kerf line are 60% more productive than the guys on the Soderberg line. Of course, Mack has a hand in that for Gabe and Mikko but the capacity is still there.
Best case is that Kerfoot grows into that role, over the next couple of weeks they produce and take back the top spot in the lineup. There are already those that want to see a revolving door and try Tyson Jost or JT Compher there. You can make a case for that of course, both are better shot generators but don’t score points at nearly the rate Kerfoot does. Compher’s defensive skills might allow them to be used in more situations, which is tempting. If Jost is going to step up into a top 6 role then this could be the opportunity to find out if he can play center at this stage of his career. These points also make a case for keeping them together and seeing what they can do as a 3rd line.
Barrie returned to the lineup in Vancouver and had assists in both games the Avs managed to score a goal in this week. They only won one out of three however, and needed overtime to do it. Due to his contract expiring in a couple years, his value on the trade market and fan frustration with certain aspects of his play, there’s always been a desire to see what life without TB4 would be like. The 10-game win streak sure made it seem nice and confirmation bias ran rampant.
Since Mack’s absence affects so many things like scoring and wins, we need to take a look at more esoteric ways Barrie’s presence in the lineup affects the team. The easiest way to start is with defensive usage. In essence Barrie slid into Mark Barberio’s spot due to injury, what that means is more TOI and more scoring. The time has to come from somewhere and that’s where it gets interesting.
Since Barrie plays more than Barbs you’d figure everyone gets a little bit of a cut, but not so. Over the 13 games Tyson was out, EJ played 27+ minutes only 4 times. He’s played 27+ all three games since he’s been back. All the other D’s have played pretty close to their usage while Barrie was out so far, what’s changed is who they are playing with shift by shift.
Going into the ASG, the D’s had settled into 3 pairs that played mainly with each other and with consistent usage. Zadorov was with Johnson, Barberio was with Nemeth and Girard was with Lindholm. Here are the pairings & TOI at 5v5 over the past 3 games:
Z/EJ – 35:52
Barrie/Lindholm – 23:23
Girard/Nemeth – 19:56
EJ/Nemeth – 10:38
EJ/Girard – 9:51
EJ/Barrie – 9:00
Barrie/Nemeth – 6:38
Z/Barrie – 5:48
Barrie/Girard – 5:38
Z/Girard – 4:06
Z/Nemeth – 3:37
Z/Lindholm – 3:05
Girard/Lindholm – 2:20
EJ/Lindholm – 1:56
Nemeth/Lindholm – 1:47
Girard, Barrie and Nemeth didn’t have a partner they played with more than half the time. Lindy played with Barrie around 70% of the time and so did Z with EJ but that’s a whole lot of shuffling around for reasons I’m not able to guess at. The conclusion here is that defensive usage has become, or actually returned to being, more chaotic with Tyson Barrie in the lineup.
The big failure on my part is coming up with a reason why. I’ve tried, not just this season, but for most of his career to gain insight into why it seems to be so difficult to find a steady defensive partner for TB4 to set and forget. He’s a stout scorer who’s always going to get extra shifts especially when the team needs a goal, so getting random shifts in those situations is completely understandable.
Part of this comes back to an old-school mentality that the small offensively-inclined guy needs a big stay-at-home partner to balance out. We’ve seen this going back as far as you’d care to look with Barrie, always with terrible results. I’m projecting here, but the coaches’ mentality seems to be that they just haven’t found the right oaf to play with TB4, not that perhaps an oaf is not the solution in the first place. Oafs in general are bad, why they would look any better next to someone with puck skills is a mystery. What the staff, and Avs management, should look into is a defenseman that complements his skills rather than putting a player with opposite traits there to balance the overall proficiencies of the pair. In other words find someone that skates well, moves the puck well and plays at the same tempo.
For most of the Fall the staff really liked the Nemeth/Barrie pairing and even now seem to want that to be a consistent thing. As you can see above, it’s horrible from a goals for percentage and shot attempts for percentage standpoint. They get buried together and are a net drag on the team. It’s not just Barrie either, Nemeth and Barberio are actually fantastic together. This is a square-peg deal that doesn’t work, stop it please. Matching Barrie with Lindholm is actually quite promising, which is weird since Lindy and Girard are a total mess together, but playing Lindholm more than his usual 12 minutes is problematic. What it does show is speed more than size puts them on the right track to find a consistent partner for TB4.
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Both of these situations have thrown the lineup for a loop, but unlike previous years there are options that won’t destroy the team. I definitely feel like the pieces are available internally to be successful going forward rather than having to call the season before the trade deadline once again. It’s going to take some work by the players and some creativity from the staff but the answers are there. What we all want to see is Mack return to the lineup and everyone around him stronger from what they’ve learned in his absence along with a defensive regime that’s stable like it was during Tyson Barrie’s time on the injured list. All the Avs have to do is figure out how.
Thanks to leftwinglock.com and Natural Stat Trick for the player data