(photo by Dinur Blum)
SAN JOSE- On Wednesday afternoon, the same day that Team USA and Team Canada notched their bids to the semifinals in Olympic hockey, the San Jose Sharks returned to practice.
Despite missing Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Antti Niemi, the Sharks got back to business, with what many described as the most exhausting practice of the season after having more than a week off.
While he wouldn’t admit it to needing the rest, the break from action will hopefully do wonders for 37-year-old Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle.
“I think it’s a great thing for Dan” responded Sharks head coach Todd McLellan about the time off. “He’s a player who has played a lot of games throughout his career and to have the rest we just had has to be beneficial to him, both physically and mentally. He’ll regroup, he’ll comeback and he’ll be the Dan Boyle that we know.”
If you ask Boyle, the veteran defenseman is certainly glass half full when it comes to describing his own recent performance. He was in good spirits Wednesday jokingly ribbing the media about our columns that have discussed his struggles on the ice.
“Say whatever you want, you guys do anyways” Boyle joked with a wry smile. “I read the articles that this [break] is going to be real good for me and how I’ve been struggling all year.”
“Oddly enough, I think I’ve played pretty well [lately], you guys will disagree because statistically it was horrible.”
In his final 10 games before the break Boyle picked up zero points and accumulated a minus-5 rating. For an elite puck moving defenseman on a good team, those numbers are indeed horrible.
For the season Boyle is now a minus-8, which is 10 points lower than his worst full season with the Sharks when he was a plus-2 in 2010-11. His 22 points in 52 games so far this season is far from great, but still a decent output considering his advanced age. Case in point last season he was scoring at the exact same clip but looked much better while doing it.
After five good seasons with the Sharks, Boyle’s sixth can best be described (so far at least) as average, probably more accurately described as below average. Despite playing a shut down role with Marc-Edouard Vlasic in past years, Boyle is currently part of San Jose’s least effective pair at even strength. There are far too many goals finding the back of the Sharks net when Boyle is on the ice.
Of course injuries play a role, as Boyle himself admitted he probably came back too fast from his October concussion and has recently dealt with a thumb injury.
Fortunately for the Sharks, it was not long ago, just last season in fact, where Boyle was playing solid hockey. Boyle scored arguably two of the best individual goals of his career last season while being his typical above average self defensively.
Moving forward into the final 23 games of the regular season, Boyle has to be considered the biggest question mark for the Sharks. It’s pretty obvious what the rest of the Sharks top players bring to the table in terms of ability. But we don’t know yet what Boyle will be able to bring down the stretch.
Does he have to return to his usual pre-2013-14 standard for the Sharks to make a deep playoff run? No, not necessarily, but it’s hard to see Team Teal getting past Chicago in the Western Conference final without three reliable defense pairs.
However, if Boyle can return to the way he was playing even just last season, if he can get his overall two-way game back, and get the power-play clicking again on a more consistent basis, the Sharks will be difficult to beat, even for Chicago.
Boyle’s performance will probably be the key difference between the Sharks getting close yet again or actually being able to light the proverbial cigar.
For more on the Sharks follow Andrew on twitter: @ViewFromBensch