Play on the back end was the reason the 2013 San Jose Sharks survived past Memorial Day
They have fired the puck from the point on the power play and advanced it from their own end better than most. The team has been among the league leaders in both shots on goal and goals scored in each of those four seasons.
Boyle scored more points (213) than any other player on an NHL blue line over that time. The only reason he fell to a low of 48 points in 81 games for 2011-12 is that he played with a broken foot for more than a month, causing him to go scoreless in 11 of 12 games.
Even though Boyle played his best when it mattered most (34 points in 39 Stanley Cup playoff games from 2009 through 2011), the Sharks did not. Their potent power play would dry up, and they would be unable to score enough to win games after the second round.
In the 2012 Western Conference quarterfinal series with the St. Louis Blues, even Boyle could not manage more than two assists. San Jose scored just eight goals in five games, its quickest playoff departure in team history.
The trouble is, they were in the middle of a change. They had added Brent Burns and lost forward depth, but did not know how to win enough low-scoring games. They remained a big team but lost too much speed.
Instead of going back to the familiar, they committed even more. The Sharks added Brad Stuart and transitioned to a team built around a shut-down defense from the net out.
It was too much. They eventually had to move Burns up to forward, shed some of their slower defenders and add feistiness. But in the process, they became a very gritty team capable of blocking every passing and shooting lane for even the best offenses.
For no one is the transition to shot blocking more evident than the offensive-minded Boyle.
His skating allows him to make up for pinching in. His skills make it pay off and he is judicious in taking those chances. When the situation calls for defending, he is among the best, finishing in the top-50 in block shots each of the last two seasons.
Nevertheless, the 36-year old's minutes did get cut with the condensed 2013 NHL season. After being in the top-10 in either minutes per game or total minutes for the season in the previous two years, he finished outside of the top-40 in both during the regular season, in part because he was not killing as many penalties.
He was 49th in minutes per game during the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs—less than a minute per game more than forward Patrick Marleau. He was still leader of the unit (three of the five goals and five of the 14 assists), but by the playoffs he had his best support since 2009.
Scott Hannan and Jason Demers are linked by name to their Examiner.com evaluations. Brent Burns will be evaluated on that site as a forward. The rest of the blue line to play in even 12 minutes during the 2013 NHL season is examined here.
"Pickles" was taken by the San Jose Sharks with the 35th overall pick in the 2005 NHL Draft in large part for his offensive capabilities. He has become one of the best defenders in the league.
After a brilliant year in juniors, he had 26 points in his rookie season as a Shark. He had a sophomore slump and only tallied 14 points, but bounced back with 36 in 2008-09. He has just 64 points in 254 games since—almost exactly one per four games.
He managed just four goals and five assists in 48 regular season and 11 post-season games combined over 2013.
He is always on the ice, missing just 21 games in seven seasons (18 of which was in 2009-10) while playing in every game four times. He skates well, is always where he is supposed to be and is quite capable of making defensive plays with an active stick, block or even body check. He was second on the team in minutes, because he can always be relied on.
Brad Stuart wanted to play close to his Bay Area home in 2012-13. The San Jose Sharks were happy to reunite with their third overall pick of the 1998 NHL Draft pick and signed him to a hometown discount last offseason.
It worked out well for both parties. While he only scored five assists all season, he added three more and a goal in 11 Stanley Cup playoff games. More importantly, he gave the Sharks great shot-blocking and a physical presence they were pretty much otherwise without after trading Douglas Murray.
More than anything, he provided leadership with steady enough play to finish third on San Jose in ice time. Not yet 34, there is every reason to believe that Stuart has plenty of good hockey in front of him.
Justin Braun is another offensively-gifted defenseman who has made the transition to being strong in his own end. He does not line up a lot of hits or block a lot of shots that will shut down a play, but he is always there to keep it from succeeding.
He was fourth in minutes on the blue line. In 52 games between the regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs in 2013, he scored no goals and just eight assists.
His passing once used for scoring is effective at getting the puck out of the defensive zone. More importantly, his relatively mistake-free play allows coaches to trust him despite his inexperience.
At 25, Matt Irwin is not a young prospect. Yet his late arrival makes him seem like one ready to blossom into a great scoring defenseman.
He has a knack for getting pucks through to the net or getting caroms in front of the crease for his forwards. That made him the only scoring threat outside of Dan Boyle, and they were inexplicably placed on the same pair (just as shot-blockers Hannan and Stuart were in the playoffs).
In 38 games, Irwin had six goals and six assists. He also added a solid 65 blocks, respectable 16 takeaways and passable (at least on the Sharks) 39 hits.
He does have major holes in his game. Irwin is not a good skater, known to fall down and trip over his skates. But his straight-line speed is OK, so he should be able to jump to fourth on the blue-line depth chart by improving his skating.
Bay Area native Matt Tennyson is entering the last year of the deal he signed as an undrafted free agent in March 2012. He is likely to start the season in the minor leagues to develop his game more, but he has already scored 27 points in 60 AHL games.
That is why he has already gotten a taste of the NHL, with a good effort in four games for the San Jose Sharks. His two points and two giveaways actually represent the best point-per-game and assist-to-giveaway ratios on the blue line. In just over 60 minutes of total ice time, he also has four hits and two blocks.
San Jose has never had a season that did not require at least a dozen games from outside of the top-seven of the blue line, so it is likely a significant enough injury gets him a call-up. When it does, they will find him ice time and he will prove capable.