How TJ Brodie makes the Toronto Maple Leafs better

T.J. Brodie #7 of the Calgary Flames (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
T.J. Brodie #7 of the Calgary Flames (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images) /

T.J. Brodie is a perfect fit for the Toronto Maple Leafs

In recent years, the sharpest criticism aimed at the Toronto Maple Leafs is that they play loose. In other words, they generate a lot of scoring chances, but also allow a lot.

The narrative goes that if the Leafs can fix the leaky defense, they will become a perennial Cup contender. So naturally, they look to improvements on defense to fix the equation. In recent years, they have made key additions  – first for Jake Muzzin, then last year for Tyson Barrie. This year, Barrie is out and T.J. Brodie is in.

What was TysonBarrie?

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Tyson Barrie was billed as an offense driver and power play specialist. There were 2 Tyson Barries last year – the one under coach Mike Babcock, and the one under coach Sheldon Keefe. Looking at the numbers, he was more like himself under Keefe. But overall, Barrie struggled to make a dent on the power play. Already having a power play quarterback in Morgan Rielly was the main issue.

Yet Barrie still drove offense at even strength. He led the team in Corsi For by a significant margin. Only Auston Matthews was somewhat close. His 141 shots on goal were 7th in the league. And the Leafs had a wealth of even strength offense.

On paper, Barrie’s defensive impact didn’t stand out, either good or bad. In my view, that’s because of two reasons. First, the Leafs’ defense corps were all below average. Second, Barrie’s deployment against elites was limited (according to PuckIQ). In fact, Barrie spent by far the most time of any Leafs defenseman against non-elite competition.

Looking at the style of the player, Barrie didn’t carry the puck out of his own zone very often on the breakout. And he rarely made stretch passes.  He also wasn’t a heavy shot blocker, or especially difficult to play against in his own end.

What is TJ Brodie?

TJ Brodie is billed as a good puck mover and penalty killer.

Due to injuries last year, the Flames struggled on defense. Red flag warning – TJ Brodie was noticeably exposed by Mark Giordano’s absence.

Still, Brodie logged heavy minutes against elite competition, something Barrie didn’t do.

Compared to Barrie, TJ Brodie will move the puck out of the zone more effectively than Barrie did. Brodie likes to carry the puck out of the zone. Also, he makes more stretch passes. He is good at these areas, but not elite.

What’s more, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl make even fewer stretch passes than Barrie. So last year when Morgan Rielly was injured, none of the Leafs’ Top 4 were effectively hitting the forwards deep. Brodie changes that.

However, Brodie and Barrie are actually more similar down low than you would think. Neither player blocks many shots. Both are average sized (Brodie could even be called slight). And neither player hits much. In other words, they both play kind of soft.

One area of concern should be Brodie’s shot volume. He only put 53 shots on net last year at even strength. That means that Morgan Rielly is once again the team’s only high volume shooter on the back end.

Brodie’s not going to add anything to the power play, but he was a long serving penalty killer in Calgary. He will likely be an upgrade to a struggling PK.

What it Comes Down to

The Leafs defense corps received an upgrade when they signed TJ Brodie. Brodie can surely make on impact on the penalty kill. I am not convinced losing Tyson Barrie will make the power play any better or worse. So Brodie is a plus to special teams as a whole. And special teams is the most pressing area that needs improvement.

At even strength, Brodie will likely be their best defender, and will probably play the toughest minutes. One specific area he should make an impact is on breakouts. Breakouts will be more versatile, involving a higher rate of stretch passes and carries.

Brodie isn’t going to bring the offense Tyson Barrie did. Few defensemen can. But the Leafs need more defense from their defense corps, and Brodie brings that.

However, this all has to be put in context. The Leafs allowed 227 goals last year, good for 27th in the league. Is TJ Brodie going to stop an extra 20 goals for the team? Probably not. At best, TJ Brodie can turn a below average defense corps into a slightly below average defense corps.

The real problem remains the forwards. A defenseman’s job becomes much harder when the forwards are flying the zone, ignoring their assignments, and lazily backchecking. The forwards do too much of this every year. It doesn’t matter how good your defenseman is, they will look worse on paper if they are constantly being hung out to dry.

Babcock knew this, and doubled down on team defense. But he didn’t get much buy-in from the players. And when Keefe assumed coaching duties, he kind of just let them play. This seemed to work OK, until the post-season of course.

The Leafs’ success this year is going to come down to coaching. The most critical area they can improve in is special teams. And that’s something the coaches can do the most about.

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At even strength, the team simply has to buy in and limit chances against. With Barrie, Kapanen, and Johnsson gone, they can no longer afford to outscore their defensive inadequacies. And that isn’t really on the defense, as much as its on the forwards.