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What is going on with Ivan Barbashev?

Another year, another season of questions about Barbashev.

St Louis Blues v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Ivan Barbashev has been raising questions ever since he entered the league. The high-end potential he flaunted in juniors simply hasn’t come to fruition, yet. Instead, he’s been stuck on the St. Louis Blues fourth-line, fighting-but-failing to work his way up the lineup. He’s had his fair share of red-hot flashes but he’s never managed to keep them going.

So what’s going on with Barbashev? He looked like he could develop into a tremendous top-six, two-way threat during his days before the NHL but now, the 24-year-old is fighting to stay relevant. This is especially true after his 2019-20 season. Despite being on pace to break his career-high of 26 points (by one point), Barbashev’s advanced stats reveal that he was, well, kind of terrible.

That’s right, we’re diving deep into the advanced stats again to try and figure out what’s wrong with Barbashev and what need to be done to fix it... or if anything can be done. Strap in.

Deciphering the Ivan Barbashev Mystery

This Season

Ivan Barbashev managed to net 11 goals and 12 assists this season, a modest tally considering his minute play. But it didn’t answer any questions. The centerman looked like an offensive dynamo at the end of the 2018-19 season and transformed into a human wrecking ball in the playoffs - leading the entire NHL in postseason hits by an admirable margin. Many fans thought the 2019-20 season could be the year that Barbashev finally broke out of his shell. But instead, he turned in one of his worst seasons to date.

The best way to visualize this is to check out his RAPM chart. But before we get to that, it’s important to see where Barbashev really ranks in the league. His xGF/60, which essentially looks at his isolated offensive potency, was atrocious this season. Out of the 216 players to spend at least 900 minutes on the ice this season -at any strength - Barbashev ranks 202nd in xGF/60. His impact on the Blues offense was among the worst in the league, significantly bringing down the team’s offensive potency when he was on the ice.

If that wasn’t bad enough, his xGA/60 (which, in the same vein, looks at defensive strength) was just as bad. In the same group of 216 names, Barbashev’s xGA/60 ranks 181st, again showing just how disappointing his performance was. His dragging down of the Blues play ranked him as one of the worst player in the NHL this season.

To add insult to injury, Barbashev’s WAR and xGAR (wins-above-replacement and expected-goals-above-replacement) are just as grim. He tallied a -0.2 WAR, 198th among the group of 216, and a -1.3 xGAR, 200th in this group. He was far below a replacement-level player all season, performing worse than standout disappointments like Phil Kessel and Jonathan Toews. Barbashev’s downfall this season is greatly shown by his career WAR and GAR charts, highlighting his continuing fall into the depths of league-worst:

Ivan Barbashev’s career WAR and GAR/60 chart, courtesy of Evolving Hockey.

The RAPM Chart

With that groundwork laid out, the truly dramatic nature of his RAPM chart is apparent. These charts graph GF/60, xGF/60, CF/60, xGA/60, and CA/60; gauging a player’s offensive output, expected offense, possession-for metric, expected defense, and possession-against metric. It’s long-winded but ultimately, a score of zero is replacement-level on these charts. More red means the player was worse in that department. Here is Barbashev’s chart from the 2019-20 season:

Ivan Barbashev’s 2019-20 RAPM Chart, courtesy of Evolving Hockey.

This chart is... uh... bad. Really bad. At even-strength, Barbashev failed to do absolutely anything right. Judging by their even-strength charts, the Blues would’ve been better off rolling Klim Kostin, Nathan Walker, or even winger Austin Poganski at Barbashev’s fourth-line center role. All three AHLers had much better performances in their limited NHL time this season but were done away with in favor of the much worse Barbashev. In another act of reliable-over-reasonable - the Blues calling card - promising AHL names couldn’t do anything to fight for the roster spot of a much worse NHLer.

So... Barbashev is Bad?

This is a lot of negative talk, and rightfully so, but Barbashev is far too unique to be defined by simple advanced stats. His play this year was very interesting. Despite such horrid numbers, there was one place Barbashev thrived: being a center.

The Rush

Let’s explain. Everyone knows what a center’s role is one the ice, other than winning faceoffs: providing reliable two-way play and quarterbacking their wingers. A center’s job starts the second the breakout begins, where they’re often seen receiving the breakout pace and head-manning the rush forward.

This is a role Barbashev excelled at. He was one of the best players on the Blues lineup at manning the rush, being defined as the greatest “Dual Threat” on the Blues in Cory Sznajder’s graph of Transition Play/60 versus Controlled Entries/60. It’s a fairly complicated and newer stat but Barbashev’s high tally in both shows his strength as a forecheck-quarterback, leading his line up the ice with confidence and showing great worth with the puck on his stick, at least as far as the rush up the ice is concerned.

So What’s the Fix?

This may be the hardest question facing the Blues right now. Harder than, “How do we re-sign Alex Pietrangelo?” or “How do we keep Vince Dunn?”, finding out how to resurrect a player that has been on an emphatic decline since his first NHL game is a seemingly impossible task.

Very few career WAR/GAR charts, and very few RAPM charts, have found a way to turn around after such a dramatic downfall. But all hope is not lost for the 24-year-old Barbashev. He’s still young and shows flashes of great hockey IQ and two-way ability, even if his horrid RAPM chart disagrees emphatically.

There’s no advanced stats to answer this question, though, meaning there are no “simple” answers. To really find the answer behind this issue, we need to turn towards the shot charts and the video:

The Charts

Below is a chart of every shot Barbashev took at 5v5 this season. The sizes of the diamonds are scaled to the shot’s xG value, meaning the larger the diamond the greater chance said shot went in:

Ivan Barbashev’s 5v5 Shot Chart (2019-20), courtesy of Evolving Hockey.

Like many forwards, and even moreso many centermen, a large majority of Barbashev’s high-danger shots come from directly in front of the net. But his also has a very large tally of shots coming from the heart of the slot, a bit more of an uncommon thing to see. Another uncommon occurence is just how many shots Barbashev took. Largely thanks to his trust with the puck, relative to his fourth-line wingers, Barbashev took the ninth-most shots of all 18 forwards to play with the Blues this year. The only other bottom-six names to shoot more than him were Robert Thomas, Oskar Sundqvist, and Tyler Bozak.

This doesn’t seem incredibly of note but digging deeper, it shows the true nature of Barbashev’s role. Seeing his great ability to man the rush on the fourth-line, the Blues have commanded Barbashev to rifle the puck whenever he can.

The issue is, Barbashev isn’t very efficient with his shots. At all. He had 19 shots that came precisely from the slot this season. This area is often deemed the most-dangerous part of the ice by youth coaches. Every former and current hockey player, at any level, will agree that getting the puck to the slot is priority-number-one on offense. It’s there that players are truly dangerous. Despite this, Barbashev only managed three goals from this area, a success rate of just under 16 percent. On the other hand, eight of his shots missed the net entirely! Over half!

This is ample evidence that Barbashev is simply not smart with his shooting. It shows that despite the trust put into him to take high-danger shots, Barbashev can’t muster much. This anxious and unreliable style is backed by the odd dispersion of Barbashev’s shooting. He seems to take a shot from anywhere on the ice, from the blue-line to behind the net. While this may be a sign of a strong and flexible shooter, given Barbashev’s inefficiency it more reflects a rush to shoot, no matter where he is.

The Video

The video backs this up entirely. Barbashev’s play in the offensive zone seems incredibly rushed and anxious. Despite playing in over 200 NHL games through the last four seasons, Barbashev still lacks confidence and completely rushes his decisions with the puck when in the opposing team’s end.

This is an admittedly crass analysis of Barbashev’s 2019-20 campaign but the evidence is laid out and lines up perfectly with what’s shown by his shot chart. Barbashev’s offensive issues aren’t the product of an advanced stat mystery or simply poor play. It’s the mental game, often the biggest hurdle for any player to overcome.

The Solution

There is absolutely no definitive way to solve Barbashev’s terrible woes. His decline has been horrendous and places him in a situation where, right now, the Blues would be much better off going with one of their high-end AHL options. But, if the Blues did want to stick with Barbashev, the solution may not be too far off.

The mental side of hockey is very much real and very much an incredible issue for any player. The quick thinking and fast-paced nature of hockey creates a situation unlike any other sport, where players have to act on split second decisions and subconscious training every single second. It creates a situation of immense anxiety, something players have to learn to overcome if they want to be successful.

Barbashev hasn’t surpassed this anxiety, yet. His rushed and nervous decisions in the offensive end, shown by both his shot chart and video, have dug him into a hole, one that surely feels impossible to climb out of at this point. But with a healthy amount of mental training, Barbashev may be able to claw his way back above the replacement-level line.

It sounds like a bit of a strange solution but such a dramatic change in production and style of play from juniors to the NHL is simply evidence of how playing in the best league in the world has affected Barbashev’s psyche. The centerman needs to spend this extended break from action to reinvent his thinking. It’s time for him to trust his talents and embrace the skill that got him to the NHL in the first place.

With a tremendous confidence boost will surely come a tremendous boost in efficiency from Barbashev’s role as a shooter. Working to stay calmer with the puck and make smarter, more effective shots will boost an offensive ability that Barbashev simply didn’t have this year.

If his juniors career is any evidence, a stark boost in confidence and, likewise, offense will directly coincide with a tremendous boost in defense. In his juniors career, this boost is what landed him on so many draft boards. Seeing a similar turn of events at this level would turn things around entirely for the struggling Barbashev.

Ultimately, this horrendous 2019-20 season is not the end for Barbashev. He’s struggling the same way he did when he first joined North American hockey eight years ago, albeit on a much larger scale. While seeing four years of poor play is far less than ideal, Barbashev still has all the tools he needs to succeed at the NHL level. If he can fix his thinking, and become more confident with the puck on his stick, he may be able to salvage what is quickly turning into a very disappointing NHL career. It may seem thin-veiled but the pieces are there, it’s now Barbashev’s time to take charge. If not, he could be out of the league in no time; especially in such a promising Blues system.