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End of Season Review: Ivan Barbashev and Tage Thompson

St. Louis Blues v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

I wanted to review these two players for a couple of different reasons. In the first place, both Thompson and Barbashev came into the 2017-2018 season with a lot to prove. People were raving about Thompson non-stop in the offseason, and Barbashev was being touted as a prospect who just needed a little more seasoning in the minors before he could step into a big role with the Blues. I wanted to go in-depth on these two because what the Blues needed more than anything this year was offense, and Tager and Barby were given enough ice time to prove they could deliver some goals. Their performances this year were crucially important to such a scoring-starved roster, and the Blues would have preferred to get more out of them.

Not only are these two forwards similar in point production, but they are both being utilized by the coaching staff in a nearly identical fashion. Barbashev did get slightly more average ice time per game in addition to 12 more regular season games, but the point production for both players is roughly the same. I think Lou Korac’s grades for both players - a C+ for Thompson and a C for Barbashev - are entirely accurate and speak to the underwhelming season both players truly had this year.

I hate to pick on Jaskin here, but if I’m on the coaching staff, I do not want these two to develop into another version of Jaskin. If we compare Tage and Barby’s seasons to Jaskin’s development trajectory, it looks a bit concerning:

I’m not implying that Thompson and Barbashev are busts on the basis of this season alone, and comparing their stats with one of Jaskin’s most underwhelming years might not be entirely fair, admittedly. Additionally, Dmitrij’s role seems to be more defensive in nature, especially when compared with Barbashev and Thompson’s style of play. But as this most recent trade deadline taught us, top-six forwards are tough to come by, and a small percentage of promising young forwards actually grow into that valuable role.

If we compare Barbashev and Thompson to the rest of the league’s 40-55 GP, 11-12 minute average TOI forwards, we can see a profile of a 100-ish shot attempt, 12-15 point-a-season bottom-six cog beginning to emerge. Tage and Ivan should be eager to break out of this forgettable mold next season. I would love to see one (or both) of these young forwards blossom into a consistent 40 point player, so what needs to change for Barbashev and Thompson in order to get there?

Just to keep these comparisons in the same universe as Barbashev and Thompson, I limited the results here to forwards in the 35-45 point range who did not exceed 65 games played. While the forwards listed here were trusted with far more ice time, I don’t think Thompson or Barbashev suddenly generate 30 more points if Yeo gave them a longer leash. Maybe you could make the case that an increase in quantity of ice time and relative quality of line-mates would improve Thompson or Barbashev’s numbers. It certainly couldn’t hurt, but they were both given long looks with the big club and didn’t make the most of them.

How did Palmieri end up with 44 points over 62 games? There are a ton of different variables that factor into his success, but I would argue his point production is primarily tethered to his willingness to shoot the puck. Palmieri’s 326 shot attempts over 62 games averaged out to a little over 5 shot attempts per game. By that model, Tage generated 2.75 shot attempts per game, and Ivan clocked in even lower at 1.94 per game.

Coaches throw the word ‘shot-first mentality’ around quite a bit, but this is a textbook example of what it actually looks like in the real world. Before Thompson even receives the pass, his weight is loaded on to his back foot, his head is up, and his shoulder is dropped. This is a damn-near-perfect example of pre-shot body positioning:

Thompson finds the back of the net with the exact same formula against the Panthers:

Hockey sense comes into play here too - look at how Tage ‘vectors’ at the 3 second mark by stopping up just the tiniest bit to find that precious opening in the slot - but Thompson is on his game when he combines the quickness of his release with his shot-first mindset and superb body positioning:

He doesn’t bother with a wind-up; NHL-caliber snipers don’t rely on shot velocity alone to score goals. It’s all about a rapid release, about minimizing the netminder’s reaction time, and Tage can’t bury that puck if he’s not prepared to one-touch that wrister on net right as he receives the pass. Thompson can absolutely become that ‘off the rush’ offensive threat if he continues to drive the net just like this.

Barbashev is also blessed with a terrific wrister (his two goals from the top of the circles were reminiscent of Tarasenko’s modus operandi) but I get the sense Ivan is at his best around the goalcrease. He can handle the puck remarkably well under pressure:

It is incredibly difficult to put a shot on net when you have two defensemen draped all over you, but Barby makes it look effortless:

I don’t know if it’s fair to categorize Barbashev as a dangler and Thompson as a triggerman based on this limited visual sample size alone, but Ivan’s goal against the Flyers tells us a bit about his goal-scoring instincts, and how they might differ from Thompson’s:

Barbashev converts on a high-danger scoring opportunity by electing not to shoot, deciding instead to leverage his puck-handling abilities. Most hockey players - especially of the North American persuasion - have it drilled into their heads at an early age that a shooting opportunity between the faceoff dots should never be wasted. In this frame, Barbashev isn’t thinking shot-first inside of a high-percentage scoring zone:

I’d be willing to bet 85% of NHLer’s in that area of the ice, with that much open space, just choose to fire the puck while they still have such a good look in front of them. Barbashev displays some goal-scorer’s instinct here; he’s got such terrific patience and poise with the puck and those are attributes that any coach will tell you are super difficult to teach.

Thompson certainly has a lot of time left to develop, and his rookie season came with the sort of struggles you would expect to see from a player learning how to make the jump from the AHL to the show. With any luck, Barbashev will likely hit his 100th game in a Blues uniform next season. While he’s still young, the clock is beginning to tick; can he turn all of that flashy potential into tangible progress?

Blues fans everywhere lusted after trade-bait at the deadline this year. They wanted a top-six forward like Derrick Brassard or Patrick Maroon, and many were irked at Armstrong for walking away from the table when Kyrou or Thomas became the asking price. Trying to predict which prospects will actually pan out is tricky business, and even the best minds in hockey get most of their appraisals wrong. Barbashev or Thompson could both turn into the next Ty Rattie, and so could Kyrou or Thomas, too.

What it comes down to - especially when we’re talking about forwards - is that elusive finishing ability. That’s what separates Ty Rattie from Claude Giroux. Goal-scorers convert on chances that lesser forwards miss. They win battles for pucks on the boards and turn nothing into something. They throw pucks at the net habititually. When nothing is working for a true goal-scorer, they just put their heads down and head to the net, and some errant shot bounces off their ass and rolls into the net. Barbashev and Thompson both have shown glimpses of this, but, arguably, so did Jaskin, and so did Rattie, and so did any number of mediocre forwards. If Ivan and Tager want to do better than a “C+” next season, they had better start leaving their mark on the scoresheet.