6-foot-7, 244-pound Brian Boyle was not supposed to make the New York Rangers out of training camp back in September. Everyone, and I mean everyone, thought he was destined to be assigned to the American Hockey League when they planned out their projected lineups for the 2010-11 season. With a little help from figure skater Barbara Underhill in the offseason, Boyle strengthened his weaknesses and not only made the team, but finished the year sixth on the club in overall scoring, defying all odds and quieting his critics. Boyle became a part of the Rangers' "core group" as the season went on, and also provided for one of the best success stories I have seen in hockey in recent years.
In 71 games played with the Rangers in 2009-10 - two seasons ago - Boyle registered four goals and two assists for six points. Just a year later, in 82 games played, Brian was one of five Rangers to surpass the 20-goal mark last season and also finished with 35 points. Talk about a transformation, eh?
I am not trying to make Boyle into an All-Star here because believe me, he is far from it. He doesn't possess an abundance of skill, nor is he a dominant force out on the ice. Instead, it was effort and determination that made Boyle's engine run and put him on pace for a career season. That, to me, makes his story even better.
Obviously whatever Boyle did with Underhill to improve his skating over the summer paid off. He learned how to take power strides with the puck and away from it, and once when you get the hang of that, a slew of new opportunities suddenly come your way. This is what happened to Boyle, as he now was having the puck on his blade more, he found himself with more scoring chances than in the prior season and his ability to forecheck greatly improved.
I think you can also credit head coach John Tortorella's system for the Massachusetts native's success as well. In my last player review over at my blog, when we took a look at Marian Gaborik, we saw how Torts' approach sort of restrained some players. With Boyle, however, it had the complete opposite effect.
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All of the grinding, all of the battling in the corners and in front of the net, and especially all the sacrifice had Brian's name written all over it. I think that the grinding system gave Boyle many more scoring chances than he was used to, and as he showed us, the guy knows how to finish when he is given the opportunity.
Quite honestly, I don't know if there is more perfect a fit for Boyle than John Tortorella and his way of doing things. Torts requires a lot from his guys, and Boyle thrives on that additional push. He enjoys the challenge and looks at it as encouragement. It really gave him a boost this season, and he will be the first person to tell you that. The respect was mutual, too, since Torts wasn't afraid to use Boyle in all different types of situations.
Along with Brandon Prust, Boyle also became one of the squad's top penalty-killers. There was no shot that intimidated Boyle into shying away from laying down the body to block it. If I really wanted to, I could probably pull up a clip from every game where Boyle hit the deck to get his body in front of a shot. Again, this all goes back to dedication, something that Brian has a lot of to his team.
In addition to the numbers and the on-ice contributions, something else Boyle developed over the course of the year was leadership. He said all of the right things in the media; there were no excuses, no scapegoats. He told it like it was and gave honest answers, but at the same time always remained optimistic and distinctly stated his belief in the team. I think his mates fed off of that, and speaking as a fan, I know I surely did.
The best part about Boyle is that he comes at a bargain price of $525k. Unfortunately that contract will expire this summer when he becomes a restricted free agent. I don't think there is much doubt in the organization that Boyle will be returning for next season, but the question is if he will return for the season after that and so on. One good year is not enough to prove himself; he must show us that he can do it again and again, even more so since the scoring did seem to tally off towards the end of last season. 2010-11 was an awfully good start, though.
GRADE: B (The reason I give Boyle a B instead of an A is because, to me, he is not physical enough considering his size. If he can grow in the physicality department, I think his game will be fully rounded, but until then, a B it is.