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Retain Or Release: Brian Boyle

Oh Brian Boyle. What a roller coaster your New York Rangers career has been. You were acquired from Los Angeles in 2009 for a 3rd round pick; a trade that, at the time, seemed completely pointless. In your first season with the Rangers you were totally irrelevant and John Tortorella admitted, in retrospect, that he had you penciled in for the AHL going into next year. A good pre-season helped you survive the cut instead, and you defied all logic, scoring 21 goals after having six miserable points the previous season. You started the 2011-2012 season with a major identity crisis, scoring only three goals through the first 36 games and realizing that the previous season was a fluke. You salvaged the end of the year, scoring eight goals after the All-Star break. The 2012-2013 season was a mess for just about everybody, including you. It got to the point that Tortorella scratched you in March.

Boyle has been a useful piece to the Rangers for a while, but it was not until this season that he really became 100 percent comfortable with who he is; a bottom-six, penalty killing center. The Rangers had the center depth to stop forcing Boyle into roles he wasn’t suited for, and Boyle no longer was fighting to be a player he wasn’t. At 29 years old, Brian Boyle finally figured out what kind of player he can and needs to be for this Rangers team. So of course, his contract has expired and his future is more in doubt than ever.

Damn it.

 

Vitals

Age: Turns 30 in December.

Previous Contract: Three years/$1.7M AAV

Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent

Irrelevant Info Pierre McGuire Would Enjoy: One of Brian’s many brothers, Tim, was drafted in the fourth round in 2012 by the Ottawa Senators.

 

Why You Keep Him:

Think back to 2012-2013, when John Tortorella tried every desperate combination he could think of on the fourth line. Think of how, in an elimination playoff game against the Boston Bruins, the Rangers trotted out Micheal Haley, Kris Newbury, and Taylor Pyatt.

That was far from the only, or biggest, reason the Rangers were bounced that season, but the bottom-six was a major issue the entire season and did them no favors in the playoffs. This season was the opposite scenario. In a season where the Rangers perhaps did not get ideal production from their top forwards, it was their depth that buoyed them during the regular season and helped push them into the Stanley Cup Final. Brian Boyle was this year’s “Best Supporting Actor.” Six goals and 18 assists are solid numbers for a 3rd/4th line tweener, but it was his efforts defensively that made him so valuable. A 46.9 Corsi % doesn’t look very good at face value, but it’s very impressive when you consider how Brian Boyle was used. He was started three times as often in the defensive zone as in the offensive zone; the most defensive starts of anyone on the team.

His penalty killing ability is also as good as you’ll find around the NHL. Over the years, Boyle has really upped his IQ in the defensive zone. He uses that intelligence and anticipation of plays and combines it with his long reach, big body, and willingness to take some abuse to limit ideal shooting lanes, block some shots, and take some hits and stick checks to clear the zone. The Rangers had the third-ranked PK in the NHL during the regular season, and Boyle was by far Alain Vigneault’s most used forward; 40 more minutes than Dominic Moore, who was next in line. The same PK was also third among playoff teams, with Boyle again taking the bulk of the work. Among NHL forwards, Brian Boyle was on the ice for the 13th-highest number of defensive zone wins, and while it stands to reason that Dominic Moore was the guy physically taking many of those faceoffs, Boyle had quite the share himself and battled hard for the loose pucks as a result of stalemates.

In essence, Brian Boyle is everything you want out of a shutdown center. He holds his own in the faceoff circle, and particularly in the defensive zone. He’ll hold his own against other team’s top talent if necessary. He’s an elite penalty killer. It took him a few years, but he’ll battle hard for pucks in the corner and throw some hits; he was 48th among forwards in the NHL in hits this season and 12th last season. Neither Richards nor Brassard fit the mold of a true third-line, shutdown center, and the Rangers got away with it largely because Brian Boyle (and Dominic Moore) stepped up defensively much more than should realistically be expected of a fourth-liner. In a weird way, even though there are a number of more talented players on the roster, Boyle might be one of the hardest forwards to replace because he does so much that others aren’t really capable of.

 

Why You Lose Him:

If this was 2002 then there’s very little debate as to what to do here. You take advantage of the Rangers’ infinite bank vault and offer Brian Boyle three or four years with an average annual salary in the $3.33M-3.8M range. Maybe Boyle is a bit upset about not getting a chance to expand his role elsewhere. Still, the generous contract, which no other team is going to beat, the ability to stay with a team and in a city he clearly loves, and the chance to still play good minutes on a team that should, theoretically at least, contend for the duration of that contract, more than makes up for it. Boyle gets a massive payday. The Rangers keep Boyle. James Dolan spends a bit more money than Boyle is inherently worth, but when has that ever stopped the Knicks and Rangers in the past? It would be a routine conversation for Glen Sather as he convinces James Dolan that the extra million dollars or so he’s giving up is worth it in the big picture. Everybody is happy.

This is not 2002, though. It’s 2014, and that big, ugly salary cap is a major obstacle to that happy ending. The Rangers have plenty of players to worry about getting under contract this summer and Stepan and Staal are two other guys who are waiting in the wings for extensions as well. In other words, budget cuts need to be made, and Brian Boyle might need to be an unfortunate layoff. A big reason that teams like Chicago and Los Angeles and Boston have been so successful is that they have acted on the best blueprint for staying a contender in a salary cap world; lock up your key players, and replace everyone else with fiscal alternatives. Chicago, after winning the 2013 Stanley Cup, replaced Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg, and Michael Frolik by increasing the roles of guys like Andrew Shaw, graduating Ben Smith to the NHL roster, and acquiring Kris Versteeg at a shade over $2M. The Kings replaced Simon Gagne, Dustin Penner, and Jonathan Bernier with cheap young talent like Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, and Martin Jones. And so on. This has helped them keep some of their more integral players.

Brian Boyle is a good player who played a big role for the Rangers the past few seasons, but his importance pales in comparison to the likes of Mats Zuccarello, Anton Stralman, Derek Stepan, Marc Staal, Chris Kreider, and so on. Boyd Gordon, a very similar player to Brian Boyle, got three years at $3M annually from the Edmonton Oilers on the free agent market last season. Brian Boyle is going to find at least a couple teams who will offer him similar or better along with a chance to play a more prominent role. We already went over yesterday how spending $3M-4M on Brassard to center the third line isn’t perfectly smooth sailing. Spending close to that kind of dough on a 4th liner? Forget it. It’s a disastrous waste of precious cap space. No matter how much Sather and Vigneault might like Boyle.

 

Keeping/Replacing Him:

It would be premature to say goodbye to Boyle. He really loves playing in New York, and not in the, “yeah I like being here, it’s pretty cool. But I like money a lot more,” way that is often professed by athletes whose contracts are expiring. After every trading deadline, Boyle would be incredibly vocal to the beat writers in the sense of relief he felt that he was not moved. While only Boyle and his agent know for sure, there’s a sense that Boyle would make (realistic) sacrifices and help the Rangers out a bit if ultimately it meant he could stay. There’s still hope yet.

Still, envisioning the 2014-2015 New York Rangers with Boyle on the roster is rather optimistic. Even if he gives the Rangers a hometown discount. Even if Sather and Vigneault decide to go all out in their pursuit to keep Boyle. At the end of the day there might just be too big of a gap between the two sides, and not a gap in the way Ryan Callahan was fighting for every cent just because he felt like it. Rather, Brian Boyle has played himself into a level that the Rangers really have no spot on the depth chart or payroll to properly reward him with, no matter how much both sides try smudge the lines and make it work. And if they do make it work, then it’s going to put a lot of doubt into the re-signing of Stralman, Pouliot, and Dominic Moore.

If so, it will be sad and disappointing, but the earth won’t stop spinning. The Rangers have to go about filling his spot. Dominic Moore was one of the best stories of the season and became better as the season went on; including the playoffs. Though he’s a bit of a different mold, Moore can provide much of the same things Boyle does; defensive play, faceoffs, penalty killing, and the occasional offense. From there, the Rangers can throw J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast, and maybe even Ryan Bourque into the ring and have them battle it out for the wing spot on a 4th line that will still get solid minutes.

Another internal option is Oscar Lindberg. Again, a different mold than Boyle, but the ends justify the means. He’s a center in the purest sense of the position. He’s one of the best in the world (this is not a typo) in the faceoff circle. He’s got a tremendous IQ and plays the position well defensively. He’ll need some time to learn how to PK at the NHL level, but it shouldn’t be a tremendous struggle for him to pick that up. And he’d chip in offensively. Moore would shift to the wing on the fourth line in that instance (or, if Moore leaves, someone else).

External options are dime a dozen, and while they might be a downgrade from Boyle, they’d still be cost effective options. It would take an eternity to list every possible fourth liner the Rangers could bring in via free agency or trade, but a few names that stick out on the FA market at the center position are Derek McKenzie, Michal Handzus, and Ryan Carter.

 

If, indeed, Brian Boyle has played his last game as a Ranger, then he deserves much thanks for his five seasons of hard work and selfless action. And here’s hoping he doesn’t sell out to play for a team going nowhere. He’d be selling himself short.

Previous “Retain Or Release” Articles:

Brad Richards

Derick Brassard

 

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