Edmonton Oilers fans of a certain age will always compare the modern-day version of their favourite hockey team to the dynasty years of the 1980s.
For Connor McDavid is a generational player who legitimately belongs in the same conversation as Wayne Gretzky. The sublime Leon Draisaitl can impose his will on a game in a manner reminiscent of Mark Messier.
But for many years, the historical role played by the freewheeling Paul Coffey has remained vacant on the Edmonton blue-line. McDavid and Draisaitl simply lacked an offensive powerhouse to feed them the puck from the point.
Enter defenceman Tyson Barrie. Signing in Edmonton after a forgettable season in Toronto, the 29-year-old is establishing himself as the elite playmaker the Oilers yearned for.
“He’s been huge for us,” Draisaitl says. “I think he brings a lot of patience back there. Obviously, he loves being in the offensive zone. He can create. I think he’s made our game a lot faster. And he has that extra second in his game that creates lanes.
“Obviously, he’s skilled enough to find guys or get into positions to score.”
Indeed. After 33 games, Barrie leads all National Hockey League defencemen in scoring with 30 points (four goals, 26 assists). He’s settled in on the No. 1 pairing in Edmonton with Darnell Nurse.
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And yes, the 5-foot-11, 197-pound Barrie realizes he’s blessed to have two superstars to play give-and-go with. McDavid leads the NHL in scoring with 58 points (20 goals, 38 assists). Right behind him is Draisaitl with 49 points (17 goals, 32 assists.)
“It’s pretty incredible, the skill we have on this team,” says Barrie, a 2009 third-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche. “It’s world-class, as good as it gets.”
In a show of his own skill, Barrie collected four points Wednesday in a 7-3 victory over Calgary. Less than 24 hours later, he assisted on both McDavid markers Thursday as Edmonton squeaked out a 2-1 win over Winnipeg.
With the victory, the Oilers (20-13) vault into a tie with the Toronto Maple Leafs (19-9-2) for first place in the North Division.
“The points are nice, but the wins are the important thing,” says Barrie, a Victoria, B.C. product. “With team success comes personal success and I think that’s a big part of it. We’re looking to keep it going.”
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In his ninth NHL season, Barrie took time introducing himself to his new work colleagues after signing a one-year deal with the Oilers worth $ 3.75 million US.
“He didn’t want to push his way in, he got a feel for what was going on, got a feel for our team,” says Oilers head coach Dave Tippett. “He’s an elite puck mover and offensive player.
“He’s got offensive instincts. We’ve had solid defenders, but no one with the instincts with the puck that he has.”
Those instincts mean the Oilers are breaking out of their own zone with ease. He’s a right-handed shot and playing with the defensively sound Nurse allows him to jump up into the play.
No wonder Draisaitl and McDavid seem so happy.
“The top offensive players, they love it when they’ve got a defenceman who can make creative plays to find you with the puck,” Tippett says. “He’s fit in very well with our team.”
The fit is so good, Oilers fans are already fretting over Barrie’s contract expiring in the summer. (Both the player and general manager Ken Holland say they have yet to talk about a possible extension.)
“I’m kind of focused on the task at hand,” Barrie says. “There’s plenty of time for that.
“First job, we’ve got to get in the playoffs here, and then we go from there.”