Photo Credit: Kim Klement/USA TODAY SPORTS
It’s been a long time since the Toronto Maple Leafs have been buyers at the deadline. I’m not even talking all-in, trading the youth core, throwing away first round picks levels of buying. In the past thirteen years, the Leafs’ idea of “going for it” in late-February, early-March has been trading for Yanic Perreault in 2007 and Ryan O’Byrne in 2013.
But, just a year removed from the basement, the Leafs have made their first splash, and possibly not their last. It’s not quite a blockbuster, but in Brian Boyle, the Leafs have made a significant upgrade to their depth down the middle.
The Ultimate Babcock Centre
One thing we have to consider when talking about personnel decisions is that, well, the mindsets held on the blog are not the same as the ones held on the bench and in the office. We as writers may see the team in one way, but sometimes, you have to look within the confines of the present situation to make a judgement.
Knowing what we know about how Mike Babcock picks his players, Brian Boyle is the perfect acquisition for this organization. Babcock likes size; Boyle is 6’6 and over 240 pounds. Babcock likes grit; Boyle isn’t scared to throw a hit, block a shot, or drop the gloves. Babcock likes faceoffs; Boyle has won 53% of his this year, his third year of being a player in “specialist” (>52%) territory. For a coach like Babcock, who likes having a bit of meat and compete in his depth spots, this is all music to his ears.
Normally, we roll our eyes at stuff like this. That’s because these attributes are supposed to be the icing on the cake for good hockey players, rather than the only things a player is capable of doing. The good news, though? This is the icing on Brian Boyle’s cake. Boyle is actually good.
A Pretty Decent Spreadsheet Centre
Boyle is having a pretty solid basic stats year for himself, notching 13 goals and 9 assists in 54 games played. That’s not exactly going to win him an Art Ross Trophy, but we’re also talking about a player who plays about thirteen to fourteen minutes a night; fourth line territory on a Leafs team that gives its top three lines about 16-18 minutes each.
The 32-year-old plays a solid chunk of his minutes on both special teams as well, meaning that his even strength time is limited to just eleven minutes a night. As such, his rate production this year sees him at a very solid 1.65 points per sixty minutes; 133rd in the NHL among all forwards. A lot of that comes from his own shots; his rate of 9.27 shots on goal taken per hour is 31st in the NHL (Toronto has Matthews, Kadri, and van Riemsdyk in the Top 20), giving some hope to the idea that he’s willing to get the puck to the net once he has it; a welcome change compared to Ben Smith, who he appears likely to replace.
Boyle has maintained that individual shot rate over the past few years, suggesting that it’s more of a trait on his end than just a blip. The same can be said to an extent about his overall production, which is at his best rate of his career this year but was similarly strong in his first year in Tampa. is relative possession numbers have never been overly great, but he’s having a heck of a year in that regard this season, and has performed well in Tampa in terms of Expected Goals, having three consecutive positive seasons on the relative scale. Particularly, Boyle has done well at suppressing shots and quality chances, though that could be from him playing on a line that kills time a little more than it scores from a team-wide perspective.
Boyle, historically, has always been used more in the defensive zone than his peers; of the 23 skaters who have played 100+ even strength minutes with him in Tampa Bay, only Mike Blunden has started more of his shifts in the defensive zone while away from Boyle than with him.
On the penalty kill, his relative numbers (as far as shots and attempts conceded, and differential) aren’t spectacular, but it’s worth noting that Tampa Bay’s penalty kill uses a much more skilled lineup than most teams. Over the past three years, Boyle has spent the most time on the ice while a man short (378 minutes), but skaters like Valtteri Filppula, Ondrej Palat, and Tyler Johnson also sit in the 300 minute range. Even Steven Stamkos has seen over an hour of time on the unit. I’m curious to see whether under a different PK setup, a player like him who usually finds success at limiting opposing offence at even strength can find a new gear here.
Beyond This Year
The biggest question at hand here is probably what the next step is for him. Boyle becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1st, which has people curious. Did the Leafs solely acquire a rental?
I wouldn’t bet on it. It wouldn’t surprise me much if Toronto’s “buy” moves this week leant towards pending UFAs that they see in their long-term plans, but take their time to put pen to paper on. This, of course, is so they won’t have to worry about protecting them in the Las Vegas expansion draft; if they get poached, they can be signed in a week, and if they aren’t, they can sign an extension a few days later.
Boyle seems like the type of player that will be in Toronto’s medium-term plan for next year. This gives them room to move Tyler Bozak at the draft (if not this week) for alternative young assets or help in a position of weakness while moving William Nylander back to centre. So long as Boyle’s extension doesn’t go into the 3, 4, 5-year range, locking in a quadruple threat of Matthews, Nylander, Kadri, and Boyle as your group for this mini-window seems wise, especially if you’re going Top 9 / Bottom 3.
Another benefit that will come from Boyle being around is that he’ll be able to groom his successor. “Big, play driving, point contributing defensive specialist” is what everyone dreams of with cult hero prospect Frederik Gauthier. The Goat looks better than we expected this year but admittedly isn’t quite there yet. Having him learn the tricks of the trade from the player most comparable to his potential upside seems like a match made in heaven; a more targeted “mentor” than perhaps anyone else on the team has. Boyle is even a Barb Underhill (Toronto’s skating coach) prodigy, meaning he knows some of the ropes of what Gauthier and other Leafs are going through in optimizing their mobility.
Ideally, I’d like to see Boyle take a one-year extension at an inflated cost, taking advantage of Toronto’s cap surplus in 2017/18, setting up for room for another extension if merited, and room for Gauthier to slip in if not. That’s probably not super likely though.
Going The Other Way
As for the return that Tampa got back, it’s about as high as it’ll get before being panic-inducing. The biggest, most jarring part is that Toronto sent over one of their second-round picks (bringing them down to one remaining).
There’s a mixed bag there. I don’t like the idea of giving up picks, especially in a year where they’re less valuable due to the paranoia about a “weak draft” (aka, Nolan Patrick isn’t as good as Auston Matthews), and especially with a team that has a good scouting department. At the same time, Toronto can get that pick, or other supplementary-tier selections back in the coming days and months, with a long list of veterans, bubble players, and redundant prospects that can potentially be shopped around.
Having more kicks at the prospect can is great, especially when your team inches towards competitive play and needs every undervalued contract it can generate, but the fit here is strong.
Losing Byron Froese is a bit of a shame. I firmly believe that the 25-year-old is a legitimate NHL player that’s been miscast in his time up top, and that the Lightning would be best off to use him with the big club and see what they have in him.
Interestingly, the timing of the move creates a potential reunion down the line for the Leafs and their departed player. Froese has played 58 career NHL games thus far, and at his age, needs 80 games played to remain a Restricted Free Agent at the end of his deal. That’s partially pro-rated due to the 2012/13 lockout removing some games. This means that, unless Froese plays in 15 of Tampa’s next 21 games, Froese will be a Group VI Unrestricted Free Agent at the end of the season, if he doesn’t sign an extension.
Personally speaking, I’d like to see him chase his NHL dream, but if the offers aren’t there next year, there are worse ideas than having him spearhead the Marlies again. For now, though, let’s focus on Boyle, because getting a fourth line centre that everybody from the old school to the nerds can approve of, even if just for a few months, is a pretty great arrangement.