(Photo by Dinur Blum)
SAN JOSE- Let me preface this article by stating that Dan Boyle has been one of my favorite players over the years. Not only is he a very forthcoming interviewee, but he has been a dynamite No. 1 defenseman for many years. And while his offensive game has always been his primary asset, his defensive play doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Since joining the Sharks in 2008-09 through last season’s 2012-13 campaign, Boyle has been consistently above average in his own zone. It’s unfortunate that smaller sized puck movers all seem to get grouped together as being poor defensive players. That simply hasn’t been the case with Boyle.
That said, this 2013-14 season has clearly been his worst in teal.
Perhaps Boyle is still feeling the effects of the concussion he suffered back on Oct. 15th after a dirty hit (from the notoriously cheap Maxim Lapierre) left him unconscious. Boyle recently revealed to the media that he had significant problems sleeping in the months proceeding the injury. There was a phase where he couldn’t stay awake followed by a phase where he couldn’t fall asleep. You can read the full story on Boyle’s injury from the Mercury news’ David Pollak.
Boyle tells Pollak that the issues from the hit are behind him, and his mid December through mid January stretch of nine points in 15 games would suggest that to be the case. However, in his past 10 games, which includes a six game Sharks winning streak (albeit four losses as well), Boyle has just one point (via a power-play assist) and a minus-3 rating.
While plus/minus can be a tricky statistic, a poor rating on a good team is often a strong indication of a player’s struggles. The rest of the big name Sharks are well into the plus and so are fellow defensemen Justin Braun (plus-19) and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (plus-15).
The 37-year-old Boyle has fallen all the way to a minus-6 on the season. And when you consider another fellow defenseman and teammate Brad Stuart is a plus-6 and hasn’t had a strong season by any eye ball test, it only exemplifies Boyle’s struggles.
Right now, it is no question Boyle and defense partner Matt Irwin are San Jose’s third defense pair behind Vlasic and Jason Demers and Braun and Stuart.
Again, Boyle’s minus-6 jumps off the stat sheet, especially considering Irwin is only a minus-1. The only Sharks players with a worse rating than Boyle are tough guy Mike Brown (-9) and career minor leaguer John McCarthy (-12).
Boyle has never been a big positive plus-minus player, so it’s not out of the question for him to finish the season close to his usual standards. In five previous years with the Sharks Boyle has accumulated a plus-27 rating, good for about plus-5 per season.
Hopefully for the Sharks, the upcoming Olympic break will be just what the doctor ordered. With his concussion and advanced age, the long break may be more beneficial for Boyle than any other NHLer. The Sharks could definitely benefit from a rejuvenated Boyle for the stretch run.
Even though the Sharks have right-handed puck movers in Braun and Demers, Boyle is still critical. His presence gives San Jose a defensive alignment that no other team in the league can feature. That is, with Boyle, the Sharks have three dynamite right handed puck moving defensemen, one for each pair.
However, even with the unique blue-line, San Jose should still be seeking to add to it. Irwin and longtime veteran Scott Hannan are good pieces to have around, but the Sharks should seek to increase their left-handed defense depth.
While many seem to think that adding a scoring winger is the Sharks top priority, the fact of the matter is that the Sharks have plenty of forward depth when healthy. When they return from the Olympic break, chances are that they feature a third line of Raffi Torres, Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels. If that’s not the best third line in hockey, please, show me a better one.
While it would be nice to see former Shark and current Dallas Stars left wing Ray Whitney return to San Jose, I’m significantly more concerned about the Sharks depth on the blueline.
In recent games, one can only cringe when Boyle and Irwin get caught on a long shift in their own zone. Neither one is playing at the level they were at last season. A nice break in the schedule should help Boyle, but an extra defenseman like Calgary’s Kris Russell (who is in the last year of his deal that pays him $1.5 M) might be an even better addition than Whitney.
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