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Game #35 – Hawks vs. Devils: Spotlight – Boyle Or Mole?

While it’s hard to do, the following is going to do its best to ignore the off-ice story of Brian Boyle this year. Which isn’t fair, because it is a good story for what everyone agrees is a pretty good guy. Boyle was diagnosed with leukemia before the season, and is playing through the treatments, essentially. We’ll put that to the side.

Boyle signed as a free agent with the Devils this summer, after stops in LA, New York, Tampa, and a rental for the Maple Leafs last year. When you think of a checking center, or a center who coaches love because they simply win draws, kill penalties, and play reasonable defense, Brian Boyle is probably near the top of the list.

One of the reasons that hockey analytics has failed to catch on in the mainstream, or at least embraced by teams wholly (and they haven’t) is that there really is no way to evaluate a player like Boyle. Yes, he wins a lot of draws and you can measure that, but we also know that winning a lot of faceoffs doesn’t really connect to winning, or even being a good possession team. Individual draws can be important in a game, and it’s certainly a plus to have Boyle around for those, but overall they’re massively overrated. But given the nature of hockey coaches, try and tell them that a defensive zone draw with a one-goal lead and 80 seconds to go isn’t important. That’s where Boyle’s value is seen.

Boyle’s metrics have always been subpar. He’s only had a Corsi-percentage above the team rate once in the past six year. Same as his expected goals, and some are really below the surface of whatever team he was on. But is that fair to him? Boyle has never gotten good zone starts, and some years saw less than 30% of his shifts start in the offensive zone. Given that he’s pretty much a clydesdale when it comes to mobility, it’s asking a lot for him to turn the ice over. It’s doubly hard when he’s usually facing the toughest competition, as he’s tended to take on first and second lines with the Rangers, Lightning, and now the Devils. There are only a very few players who can do all that, and it’s basically Marcus Kruger.

So even winning all those draws, as he does, doesn’t really ever get Boyle out of his own zone that much. Then again, imagine what these numbers would look like if he didn’t win a lot of draws.

We can try and get to the bottom of it by seeing what Boyle’s teams surrender when he’s on the ice, as he’s always been placed to play defense. The past three years has seen Boyle’s Corsi-against per 60 minutes at 41 consistently, which is very good. For frame of  reference your leader in that category this year is Adam Lowry at 38.09, and a mark of 41 would be top ten in the league. Sadly for the Devils, Boyle’s mark this year is 52.8, though obviously some of that is the possession problems overall for the Devils, including a creaking defense.

Boyle’s expected goals-against per 60 over the years has been very good as well, in the 15.-1.7 range the past three years before this one. That mark would be top ten in the league again, except this year Boyle’s at 2.46. Again, some of that is the Devils as a whole, but some of it is that Boyle is A. 33 and B. having to play himself back into shape.

Not all of this matters when you’re shooting 22% as Boyle is at the moment, and he is getting into more offensive areas as the Devils ask more of him than previous teams and coaches have. But we can safely say that while Boyle was a pretty handy 3rd or 4th center, age and health have caught up to him. And he probably can’t outshoot those problems for too much longer.

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