Saturday, January 1, 2011

Brian Boyle Striding To Rangers MVP Thus Far?

Lou Capozzola/Getty Images
The New York Rangers acquired center Brian Boyle before last season for a third round pick and after his first season with the club that looked like an atrocious trade.  Boyle played well in penalty killing situations and was a decent fourth line player, but he was awful in the faceoff circle and seemed reluctant to use his size as a weapon and play a physical game.  Those things led to Boyle coming into camp as a bubble guy to even make the roster this season, but from the opening days of training camp it was clear that this year’s version of Brian Boyle would play more like a first round draft pick.  During preseason it was evident there was a different personality to Boyle’s game this year, but no one could have foreseen this kind of play through the team’s first 38 games.  It is not a stretch to say that Brian Boyle has gone from on the outside looking in to make the club to the team’s MVP so far this season.

To truly understand the transformation one must go back to last season and put numbers to the description of his year I laid out above.  Boyle recorded four goals and two assists in 71 games.  Those stats are bad but some of the others are even worse where Boyle played to a -6 rating, won 38.7% of his faceoffs and only garnered 8:25 a game of ice time.  So what changed?

As with any hockey player who makes a huge transformation in their game it starts with putting in the work in the offseason and Boyle certainly did that this year.  It has been well documented the work that Brian Boyle did this past summer with Barb Underhill is completely revamping his skating (video at bottom).  What cannot be understated is how the difference the stride and the confidence it has instilled in Boyle has changed the way he plays this year. 

When you watch Boyle this season he is quicker up and down the ice which helps him immensely in getting in on the forecheck and beating guys with speed moves.  He is also more powerful on his skates which helps him in the cycle game and to finish off those speed rushes by dipping his shoulder and forcing his way to the net.  Both of these things have also made him a more able and willing physical player who already has 111 hits and 37 blocked shots when he totaled 143 hits and 41 blocked shots last season.  Those technical things have led to better results which leads to a snowball effect because once confidence is high a player continues to drive through any situations that earlier would have shut down their game.

Boyle along with his main running mate Brandon Prust were assumed even when they were to be on the club to be two-thirds of the team’s fourth line.  Partially due to injuries early in the year and their play they were given a chance to earn an increased role at even strength and both have thrived in that and along with Ruslan Fedotenko been the team’s most consistent line throughout the season and it is for that reason that with all the line juggling John Tortorella does he rarely breaks the trio up and certainly never the duo.  He has paired with Prust to be not only an excellent penalty killing tandem, but a huge threat to go the other way and a key reason why the Rangers lead the league in short-handed goals.

Statistically Boyle is having an amazing season with fourteen goals and eight assists in the team’s first 38 games.  To put that in perspective coming into this season Boyle had a grand total of twelve goals and sixteen points in 107 career games.  To say that he is having a career year would be the understatement of the year.  He has earned an increase to 14:59 a game of ice time and is now winning faceoffs at a rate of 49.3 percent for the season.   All of those numbers are impressive but if we drill down even further Boyle has three goals, six assists with a plus six, winning 54.7% of his faceoffs all while playing 17:14 per game over his last 7 games.

What you have to love about Boyle beyond the statistics is the way he is for his team on the ice and in the interviews he gives.  You hear him say things like, “It is an honor to play with that guy,” in talking about Brandon Prust and defer all his credit away from himself.  Selflessness like that and the willingness to do whatever it takes to win are the definition of why the Rangers as a team are in a different place this season.  Boyle typifies the motto of this place in playing for the name on the front and not the one on the back and he proves that on every shift whether the team is up 5 or down he plays the same driven game looking to spark the team and defend it where necessary.

The only thing that Brian Boyle has not this season is be a force on the power play and that is not at all his fault, but the fault of the coaching staff for not giving him the time there he deserves.  One of the Rangers problems on the power play other than lack of shots on target in general is the lack of screens and banging in rebounds which a guy of Boyle’s size would help immensely but for whatever reason he has not gotten his chances.  Hopefully that is the next level of responsibility that Torts will give to Boyle.

Everyone knows how much I love the way Dubinsky is playing and how he has carried this team for stretches of the year while having the all-around play and statistical numbers to warrant being this team’s MVP, but if he has not already taken the title from him I believe Brian Boyle is right there with him.  Yes his numbers are a level below Dubinsky, particularly in the assist column, but what Boyle has over Dubinsky is a consistency of impact in every game that Dubinsky got away from when Gaborik first came back from injury.  Either way you cannot go wrong in choosing an MVP for this club and considering where Brian Boyle’s status on this club was just four months ago for him to even be in the discussion is a testament to him not only in his talent, but his character to make himself into the player and more importantly the teammate he is.  It is why he has become part of the Rangers core and why for me he was a no brainer to be the first story of 2011.