Boyle More of a Closer

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (June 18) – The Maple Leafs have some interest in pending free agent defenseman Dan Boyle – whose rights currently belong to the New York Islanders. But, it’s a scenario that makes minimal sense for the Blue and White.

Neither now, nor after July 1.

Though well past his prime, Boyle is still a good hockey player with skating, passing and puck-handling skill. He is also a respected voice among teammates and a guy that knows about winning. His character would help fill an enormous void here in Toronto. Problem is, Boyle will be 38 next month and is far-more of a closing piece than a defensive mainstay. He would fit perfectly, for example, with the Eastern Conference-champion New York Rangers, who have one of the best young defensemen in the world (Ryan McDonagh) but need another shooter to help their flagging powerplay – ranked 11th of 16 teams in the playoffs at 12.6% efficiency. A better example of how poorly New York fared with the man advantage is a comparison to the other three Cup semifinalists. Los Angeles led the way at 23.5%. Chicago was 21.0% and Montreal 19.7%. Boyle may have substantially helped the Rangers.

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THE NEW YORK ISLANDERS ACQUIRED NEGOTIATING RIGHTS TO PENDING UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT DAN BOYLE LAST WEEK FROM SAN JOSE AND ARE LOOKING TO FLIP THE VETERAN DEFENSEMAN BEFORE JULY 1.

The Leafs, of course, are nowhere close to being boosted by a 38-year-old player at any position – particularly on defense, where the club’s future appears to be brightest. I say “appears” because defense is the toughest skating position to master. Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Petter Granberg and Matt Finn are terrific prospects and Cody Franson – who many Leaf observers have written off – is also still around. Franson provides a cautionary tale. In the shortened season last year, and during the Leafs seven-game playoff quarrel with Boston, he appeared to be ascending into the front rank among Toronto blue-liners. When the Leafs played 82 games this season, he looked slow and indecisive.

In my view, his regression speaks to coaching and may have been a reason why the Maple Leafs parted company with assistants Dave Farrish, Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon. More ominously, it could be a failure of head coach Randy Carlyle, whose work with the team’s younger players left a lot to be desired in 2013-14. If this doesn’t improve and Leafs are not able to adequately nurture their defense prospects, it may never be time to acquire such a veteran as Dan Boyle.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider that only once in the 44-year history of the universal draft has Toronto come close to properly drafting and cultivating a blue-liner. Ian Turnbull, selected 15th overall in 1973 from the Ottawa 67′s, was a vital cog with the young, improving Leafs of 1973-1978. Turnbull and Borje Salming (signed as a free agent from Sweden the same year) developed into one of the best defense pairings in Leaf history. It hasn’t since been equaled.

As for the blue-line prospects the team either wasted a draft pick on; prematurely gave up on or failed to develop… well, the list is Herculean.

Coincidentally, it began with Carlyle – drafted 30th overall from Sudbury Wolves in 1976 only to be relinquished, two years later, in a miserable trade with Pittsburgh for fading veteran Dave Burrows. In 1981, Carlyle had 16 goals and 83 points with the Penguins and won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman. In later years, such Leaf mismanagement became habitual. Joel Quennville, Craig Muni, Bob McGill, Jim Benning, Gary Nylund, Al Iafrate, Todd Gill, Luke Richardson, Drake Berehowsky, Grant Marshall, Kenny Jonsson, Jeff Ware, Marek Posmyk, Carlo Colaiacovo, Jay Harrison, John Doherty, Anton Stralman and Luke Schenn were either terrible picks; decent picks the Leafs could not develop, or players that improved with other teams.

Iafrate and Gill, in particular, were classic examples of talented, unpolished defenders victimized by poor coaching here in Toronto.

That trend accounts for the post-1967 Maple Leafs virtually never being in a position to add a viable “over-the-top” player like Dan Boyle. It is up to Brendan Shanahan and Dave Nonis to ensure the pattern is one day broken and – more importantly – that such youngsters as Gardiner, Rielly, Granberg, Finn and Franson are not wasted like so many before them. As for now, the Islanders and/or Boyle – a UFA in two weeks – will almost surely do business elsewhere.

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