SAN JOSE—It was as if Mike Babcock ordered up Brian Boyle by simply speaking his wish out loud.
Asked to assess his roster’s depth after Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Canadiens, the Maple Leafs coach put out a not-so-subtle call for reinforcements at a certain important position.
“We have good depth in lots of spots — not as much at centre ice,” Babcock said.
And just like that, not much more than 36 hours later, Leafs management made a deal to address the issue. In acquiring Boyle, the 32-year-old fourth-line centreman formerly of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto brought into its fold a rare NHL commodity — one of a dying breed of veteran grit guys in a league always looking for younger, cheaper versions of the type.
But Boyle, who came at the price of a 2017 second-round pick and the seldom-used Byron Froese, has a resume that differentiates him from the average bottom-six forward. Along with a six-foot-six frame that ought to be a turn-on to the size-obsessed Babcock, Boyle is in possession of something that’s mostly missing from the current Toronto lineup. That’d be a deep well of post-season experience, including back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup final in 2014 and 2015 as a member of the Rangers and Lightning, respectively.
As rentals go, Boyle, an impending free agent, is a high-mileage one. Since he made his post-season debut with the Rangers in 2010-11, he’s played in precisely 100 playoff games. No NHLer has played in more over that span. Roman Polak, the Toronto defenceman who counts himself as the next-most-experienced Leaf, has played in 49 career playoff tilts.
The deal amounts to the latest piece of evidence that the Maple Leafs aren’t simply hell-bent on getting to the playoffs in the here and now — they’re also of the belief that they can do some damage should they get there. And Boyle, speaking to reporters on a conference call Monday, certainly sounded like a man who sees possibilities in his new posting.
“When I came down to Tampa (as a free agent in 2014) it was a younger team, relatively untested, and we went to the Cup final that year. So the potential and the opportunity is there (for the Leafs),” Boyle said.
This didn’t qualify as Toronto mortgaging the future for the benefit of the present. Call it a mildly indulgent purchase in the name of instant gratification. The Leafs, even with that second-round pick out the door, still have an abundance of selections in the next couple of drafts. But given the upside of exposing Toronto’s best youngsters to important games down the stretch and possibly into the post-season — and given Boyle’s reputation as a well-travelled emotional leader on a team that could use some experience — the price of doing such business seems more than reasonable.
“I moved up in the standings in a matter of a couple hours. That’s exciting for me,” Boyle said. “The playoffs for me are the most fun hockey I’ve had a chance to play.”
On one hand, Monday’s news had to be hard to take for Boyle and the Lightning. A day after GM Steve Yzerman traded impending free-agent Ben Bishop to the L.A. Kings, Yzerman unloaded Boyle, who spoke of being momentarily discombobulated by the development.
“What do I do first? Do I start packing a bag? Do I take a shower?” he mused. “I’m going to miss my buddies . . . It’s obviously tough to say goodbye.”
Not that Boyle wasn’t thrilled to say hello to his new teammates. Boyle said he would “hopefully” make his Leafs debut here in Tuesday’s game against the Sharks.
“It’s going to be very exciting to watch what those guys can do,” Boyle said, speaking of Toronto’s cadre of youngsters led by Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, the latter of whom participated in practice on Monday and is expected to play Tuesday after a five-game absence with a shoulder injury.
“The team as a unit is a good group of guys, from what I’ve heard. The character there — that’s a big aspect in terms of, when things get tough in the playoffs, sticking together and fighting through some things, some uncomfortable times,” Boyle said.
A functional, productive fourth line has, in recent years, been another bellwether of playoff worthiness. The value of strength up the middle has always been an NHL truism. That Babcock hasn’t been happy with the options at fourth-line centre has been no secret. Peter Holland, who began the season in the spot, was seen as a bad fit (and was jettisoned after playing eight games). Frederik Gauthier, though more of a Babcock favourite at six-foot-five, was seen as too green at age 21. Froese, who played all of two games, never got much of a chance.
Another important point that’ll please Babcock: Boyle is a better faceoff man than anything the Leafs have had in the four-hole. This year he’s winning 53 per cent of his draws, which would rank him second among Leaf regulars behind Tyler Bozak (56 per cent). And Boyle comes with a reputation for at least a couple of other talents that could come in handy.
He scores, for one — 13 goals in 54 games this season. Gauthier, Holland, Froese and Ben Smith have combined for four.
“My biggest contributions, consistently, have been killing penalties and trying to kill the clock when we have a lead at the end of a game,” Boyle said a while back.
What with Toronto’s well-earned reputation for turning second-intermission leads into less than two points in the standings it won’t be a surprise to see Boyle get some action with a late cushion. On Monday he had the sound of a man who doesn’t intend to take the opportunity lightly.
“As a player, you try to change. You want to stay relevant. So there’s a lot of motivation for me to prove Lou (Lamoriello) and Brendan (Shanahan) and the management in Toronto — to prove ’em right, that they made the right decision, and help the team win,” Boyle said. “Because that’s ultimately the beginning and the end. You want to win.”
Boyle does and the Leafs do. Monday’s trade only underlined the fact that they’d ideally like to win now and for years to come, and that the two possibilities don’t have to be seen as mutually exclusive.
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