TORONTO â€” Brian Boyle peeks through a hole in the Air Canada Centre glass about 30 minutes before Monday’s opening faceoff against the Boston Bruins to say hello to a familiar face in still unfamiliar terrain â€” his one-year-old son Declan.
The biggest adjustment for the 32-year-old since joining the Toronto Maple Leafs late last month hasn’t been on the ice, but figuring out life off it. It’s required hero’s work from his wife Lauren, who’s seven months pregnant and looking after Declan as he’s “running around in the airports and jumping on the luggage carousels and all that.”
“That’s probably the most difficult part, trying to make sure they’re OK,” Boyle said.
If not entirely settled away from the rink, the veteran centre has been a comfortable addition on it, completely altering the deployment and effectiveness of a fourth line that also includes veteran Matt Martin and rookie Nikita Soshnikov. In short, he’s made the unit palatable â€” even desirable in some instances â€” for head coach Mike Babcock.
“He helps us a lot,” Soshnikov said.
He and Martin were pleased in particular by how the line’s usage had changed with Boyle in tow.
Babcock’s trust in the American pivot at both ends has means the trio is suddenly free to match up against anyone, including Russian dynamo Nikita Kucherov last week and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews over the weekend. That didn’t happen (on purpose at least) earlier in the year when Ben Smith and rookie Frederik Gauthier ineffectively filled the ever-shifting centre spot.
“I would say he makes our line more responsible,” said Soshnikov. “We can match up against the good lines.”
Martin noticed the change in Tampa when the unit wasn’t yanked off the ice when Kucherov hopped on for the Lightning.
“That’s what we want to do,” Martin said. “It gives you a role, it gives you an opportunity.”
The change has allowed Babcock to ease competition for rookie centre Auston Matthews.
Because Boyle’s line can â€” if needed â€”absorb secondary matchups after Nazem Kadri, Matthews is subsequently free to feast on third and fourth lines and re-emerge offensively following a slowdown in production.
Martin has found Boyle to always be in proper position and able to make little unnoticed plays that increase the unit’s effectiveness. Hemmed in at one point in the third period against Boston, Boyle stepped in the way of two Colin Miller point shots â€” the Leafs eventually pulling front for their fifth win in the last seven games.
Formerly of the New York Islanders, Martin saw lots of Boyle when he played for the New York Rangers (five seasons) and found him to be an irritating oppositional force. Purposefully or not, Boyle would get under his skin and he’s brought that edge, Martin says, and some skill to Toronto’s fourth line. Enormous at six foot six and more than 240 pounds, Boyle helps the trio sustain a heavier, more effective presence in the offensive zone.
Martin and Soshnikov have both seen their ice-time tick up since Boyle came aboard and if struggling generally in the 4-2 win over the Bruins the line has improved considerably in terms of puck possession:
Martin/Soshnikov/Smith: 44 per cent
Martin/Soshnikov/Gauthier: 50 per cent
Martin/Soshnikov/Boyle: 63 per cent
Boasting 100 games of playoff experience, including two trips to the Stanley Cup final, Boyle has made an impression with a vocal, calming presence on a mostly young Toronto squad.
A large part of the Leafs draw to Boyle was that leadership and security in the fourth line centre spot as well as his ability to win faceoffs. He’s taken more defensive draws than any Toronto player since the trade, but has struggled in that regard so far, successful on just 45.5 per cent of his total faceoffs and 45.2 per cent in the defensive zone.
He’s not fared particularly well just yet either in limited duty on the penalty kill.
It’s evident Boyle still just wrapping his head around the first mid-season trade of his NHL career. He’s tried to keep “breathing through it,” ensuring his family is OK while he keeps himself ready to play â€” physically and mentally.
Lauren and Declan have bounced back and forth between Tampa and Toronto, visiting the city this week. They’ll head back shortly though and won’t be able to travel after that because of the pregnancy, meaning weeks, potentially, without family-time for Boyle.
“For every person that’s dealt it’s just a flip upside down in your life,” said Boyle, dealt to the Leafs on Feb. 27. “Even minor league deals, they’re not small deals for those guys. It’s tough and it affects more than one person when you have a family. It’s interesting.”
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press