The 2013-14 season is going to determine Brian Boyle's career path.
Is he a legitimate third-line player, or is he simply a good penalty killer who belongs on the fourth line?
Can he produce anything close to his career-high 21 goals in 2011-12, or was that just a fluke performance that he'll never replicate?
Entering a contract year, the answers to all of these questions will determine how many years and what kind of money the 6'7", 244-pound forward will get and whether or not he'll get it with the New York Rangers.
Before the hockey community can make a determination on Boyle, he'll need to re-establish his role and identity with the Blueshirts.
With Derek Stepan holding out and Carl Hagelin and Ryan Callahan likely to miss the first month of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, Boyle has the opportunity to cement himself as a guy that deserves third-line minutes and time on the second power-play unit.
Worst Year to Date
Last season, only two of Boyle's points came outside of April despite having more than 10 minutes of ice time in all but four games to that point.
He was also a team-worst minus-13, sharing some bad company at the bottom of the plus/minus barrel with the then-struggling Marian Gaborik (minus-eight), rookie J.T. Miller (minus-seven) and eventually waived/now-unemployed center Jeff Halpern (minus-five).
Looking at advanced stats (courtesy of behindthenet.ca) from last season doesn't paint a pretty picture about Boyle's play either.
|Season||GP||QoC||Corsi||Sh%||Sv%||PDO||Pens taken||Pens drawn||Off zone start%||Off zone finish%|
While Boyle posted his best Corsi rating to date, a deeper look tells us 2013 was his worst season with the Rangers—at least at even strength.
The average Corsi rating of his competition was poor. Only four forwards who played more than 10 games faced worse players on average, and while he started in the offensive zone the least of any Ranger last season, his offensive zone finish percentage was the worst among the forwards.
He took as many penalties as he drew per game, and the team's shooting percentage and save percentage when he was on the ice was the worst it's ever been in his four years with the team.
His PDO, a combination of team save percentage and team shooting percentage, topped only Brandon Mashinter and Roman Hamrlik.
While his best offensive year was easily 2010-11, 2011-12 was his best overall year. His quality of competition was at its highest, and he still produced his highest PDO while posting impressive numbers as far offensive zone finishes go, considering how seldom he started in the offensive zone.
Finding the Right Mates
How well Boyle clicks with his linemates is critical.
Boyle was at his best playing as a center between Ruslan Fedotenko and Brandon Prust. He had his best offensive season playing most of his time with them in 2010-11 and was solid the following year despite playing with them a bit less frequently.
In 2013—with Fedotenko and Prust gone via free agency—Boyle failed to build the same rapport with any of his teammates and was seemingly shuffled around all year, not just changing lines more often but also switching back and forth from center to wing. According to leftwinglock.com, his most frequent linemates were Taylor Pyatt at left wing and Miller at center—not exactly a dream trio for a line by any standards.
New bench boss Alain Vigneault told Larry Brooks of the New York Post he's liked what he's seen from Boyle at center but "would like to see him there [the wing] one time."
Boyle has skated with Marek Hrivik and Danny Kristo in most practices, including an inter-squad scrimmage—in which he scored two goals—and the first preseason game against the New Jersey Devils. Heading into Monday's preseason match against the Calgary Flames, Newsday beat writer Steve Zipay expects to see the same combination.
It'd be surprising to see both Hrivik and Kristo make the lineup, but it should be taken as a good sign that he's clicking with good perimeter players. With a few roster spots in flux at forward, at least one of the prospects starting the season on Boyle's wing is not a stretch.
It's a New Season
Embracing Vigneault's "Clean slate: Grab it!" mantra is arguably more important for Boyle than almost any other forward on the team (...paging Brad Richards).
Boyle can start by tweaking his style of play, consistently getting to dirty areas of the ice, a message Vigneault has also been relaying to his players early and often, via Katie Strang of ESPN New York.
So far, so good this preseason. Strang reported that one of Boyle's goals in the inter-squad scrimmage ended with him on the ice entangled with backup goaltender Martin Biron. He told reporters it's that type of play he needs to make more often:
Everybody likes having the puck and making plays. That's not really when I'm at my best, though. I can get in trouble that way. I'm not going to produce much from the perimeter. I think in tight, towards the net, not only for me but hopefully the guys I'm playing with, it creates room for them. It's good to be reminded of that every day. You do it and it becomes a habit.
Boyle will need to throw out last season's performance if he wants to garner the kind of attention he'd like in free agency, whether it is in New York, where he's told reporters he wants to be, via BlueShirtsUnited.com, or elsewhere.
Ironically enough, if Boyle has a good season, it could price him out of New York.
The Rangers have at least 17 projected roster players that are not signed past this season, a number that does not include Kristo or veterans Darroll Powe and Arron Asham. The list includes key components to the Rangers' core, such as Callahan, Dan Girardi and Henrik Lundqvist. No matter how well Boyle plays, he likely won't take priority.
Even if the cap goes up as expected, the Blueshirts' center depth could make Boyle expendable. Oscar Lindberg is waiting in the wings to take on a bottom-six forward role, and he's capable of playing in all situations, too.
If Richards is bought out, there may be more hope for Boyle, but even in that scenario, organizational depth at center still provides the Rangers with four potential pivots in Stepan, Derick Brassard, Miller and Lindberg. Dominic Moore could likely be retained for a cheaper price than Boyle if it called for it.
There's no denying Boyle's talent, drive and sound defensive play. His $1.7 million cap hit is manageable for a player that can generally play in all situations and has performed in the NHL playoffs as well as he has.
Now, it's time to see if Boyle's two good seasons were the exceptions or if they were the rule. If they turn out to be the latter, there's no question Boyle is a player most teams would like to have playing third-line minutes every night.