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Making Sense of the Boyle Signing

August 8, 2014, 10:58 PM ET [75 Comments]
Michael Stuart
Ottawa Senators Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
If you asked every Tampa Bay Lightning fan whether he/she is happy with what team General Manager Steve Yzerman has done so far this offseason, I think the majority would respond with a resounding yes.

Simply put, the summer of 2014 has been an unequivocal success for Bolts management. Even so, people have questions.

The one that has hit my inbox most since July 1st is this: Why did Tampa trade Nate Thompson and then immediately sign Brian Boyle to a contract richer than Thompson’s?

First of all, I think that’s a very legitimate question. On the surface, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Thompson, a fourth line center, had three years left on a deal that paid him $1.6-million annually; Boyle, a fourth line center, just signed a three-year pact that will pay him $2-million per season.

Based on that alone, it’s my belief that Lightning fans were right to question the move. Add to that the fact that the Bolts have more young, developing players than they know what to do with, and the situation becomes even more clouded.

I think it would be quite simplistic to suggest that Boyle’s superior offensive totals prompted the switch. Here’s a graph showing each player’s ratio of points per 60 minutes of ice time in all situations.

As you can see, it’s true that Boyle has historically been the more consistent (read: better) point producer. Where things get interesting is in the goals per 60 minutes category.

You might be just as shocked as I was to learn that Nate “no hands” Thompson, as he’s affectionately known, scored at a better rate than Boyle over last handful of seasons.

Regardless of what you make of this very basic analysis, it’s hard to believe that Yzerman went to all the trouble of shuffling his fourth line to get more offense. The Lightning, as currently constructed, aren’t exactly goal-starved. Even if they were, flipping Thompson for Boyle wouldn’t solve the problem.

Based on all this, it’s probably safe to assume that offense wasn’t the rationale behind the move. So we’re right back at the beginning. The question of ‘why’ is still unanswered.

Initially, I thought the answer might lie in the possession numbers. That hypothesis proved to be more than wrong, as evidenced by this graph.

Some will accurately point out that Boyle’s relative zone starts have been much tougher than Thompson’s over the years, but the impact of that is difficult to judge. In fact, there’s a fair amount of analysis out there that suggests we greatly over emphasize the effect of zone starts.

While you could certainly make the argument that Boyle has been and will continue to be the more consistent possession player, I’m not sure there’s enough there to warrant dealing Thompson for two late-round picks and then signing Boyle to a fairly significant contract.

It’s also worth noting that the two ‘down’ years on that graph for Thompson were tough on the Lightning as an entire group. The relative Corsi comparison provides even more fodder for analysis.

There’s a fairly distinctive trend in Boyle’s numbers over the last few years that isn’t nearly as apparent in Thompson’s. As Boyle carved out his niche as a fantastic checking center, his numbers dipped. The bottom line here is that neither guy is a possession all-star. Both were drags on their respective teams. They strike this blogger as very comparable possession players.

I personally don’t see enough there to call Boyle an upgrade in the possession department. If Boyle was a consistently positive or net even Corsi player, this entire conversation would be over right here. He’s not, so we’ll call the possession comparison a wash.

So, what are we left with? What makes this signing make sense?

If you’re asking me, it’s two things that the Lightning lacked last season: Those mystical “intangibles” and penalty killing ability.

I’ll be quick with the whole intangibles talk, as it’s nearly impossible to quantify their influence on a team. With that said, Yzerman and his management team repeatedly identified the fact that they wanted more veteran voices in the room. It’s no secret that this Lightning club is young and on the cusp of something special. Surrounding the young core with the experience that Boyle brings should help the team.

He's highly regarded as a strong presence and a character guy. If Yzerman's goal was to get a good influence around his younger players, he's likely done that by signing Boyle.

Moving on to that second thing - the Lightning’s 23rd ranked penalty kill in 2013-14 was downright putrid. It lacked structure. It lacked style. It lacked everything you don’t want your penalty-killing unit to lack. Thompson was a big part of that. There is no doubt that Boyle will be an upgrade.

Adam Herman over at The New York Rangers Blog summed things up quite nicely.

His penalty killing ability is also as good as you’ll find around the NHL. Over the years, Boyle has really upped his IQ in the defensive zone. He uses that intelligence and anticipation of plays and combines it with his long reach, big body, and willingness to take some abuse to limit ideal shooting lanes, block some shots, and take some hits and stick checks to clear the zone.

Moving away from the eye-test analysis, Herman also notes the following.

The Rangers had the third-ranked PK in the NHL during the regular season, and Boyle was by far Alain Vigneault’s most used forward; 40 more minutes than Dominic Moore, who was next in line. The same PK was also third among playoff teams, with Boyle again taking the bulk of the work.

Does that not sound like a player the Lightning could have used down the stretch last season? He may not be a great possession player or a dominant offensive force, but Brian Boyle knows his role and he executes well. Combine that with the veteran voice he’ll bring to the Tampa room, and it becomes a lot easier to see why Yzerman jumped at the opportunity to ink him to a three-year contract.

As always, thanks for reading.

Michael Stuart has been the Tampa Bay Lightning writer for HockeyBuzz since 2012. Visit his archive to read more or follow him on Twitter.
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