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Photo Credit: © Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Future Free Agents: Brian Boyle

Brian Boyle was acquired by the Toronto Maple Leafs for a pretty hefty price at this year’s trade deadline. He said at the end of the team’s season that he would be open to returning to Toronto, but as a 32-year-old, it’s also likely going to be Boyle’s final chance to make a big payday in free agency. Where will the elite fourth line centre end up?

Who is he?

Boyle was a late bloomer. He was drafted with the 26th overall pick in the 2003 draft by the Los Angeles Kings out of the USHL. He then went on to play four seasons at Boston College, split time between the Kings and their AHL affiliate for two seasons, and was finally traded to the New York Rangers for a third round pick in 2009.

It was in New York that Boyle found his footing as a pro hockey player. He spent five seasons with the Rangers, earning a reputation as a very good fourth line centre who could play responsibly in his own zone, kill penalties, win face-offs, and chip in a little offensively. A strong performance in a shut-down role on the 2013-14 Rangers squad that lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Kings netted Boyle a three-year, $6 million deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning. In Tampa, he manned the fourth line, playing heavy defensive zone minutes, but managed to chip in with impressive 15 and 13 goal seasons in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

With the Lightning seemingly out of playoff contention this season, Boyle was moved to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a second round pick and prospect Byron Froese. With the Leafs, he played virtually all of his shifts in the defensive zone, anchoring a shut down line with Nikita Soshnikov and Matt Martin, replacing Ben Smith/Frederik Gauthier in the role. The difference is very noticeable. Before Boyle arrived, Soshnikov and Martin posted 43.5 and 48.0 Corsi For percentages with Smith and Gauthier respectively. Then, with Boyle, the trio improved to a 57.3 Corsi For figure.

This has been the case throughout Boyle’s career. When forwards play with Boyle, even though they’re in a more defensive role, their shot attempt differentials tend to improve from the numbers they put up when they aren’t with him. Further to that point, over the past three seasons, Boyle has consistently made his team better at repressing shot attempts when he’s on the ice. There’s a reason Boyle has been labelled as an elite fourth line, checking forward.

How much is he going to cost?

Boyle is 32 years old, meaning this could be his last opportunity to cash in in free agency. His last contract, as I mentioned earlier, was worth $2 million annually over three years with the Lightning, and before that, he signed a three-year, $1.7 million annual deal to stick around in New York.

Based on the fact he scored 13, 15, and 13 goals while excelling in a defensive role over his contract with Tampa Bay, there’s no reason to assume Boyle won’t make more on his next deal than he did on the one he signed back in summer 2014. That said, since he is turning 33 in December, he likely won’t be going any higher than the three-year term he’s been given on his last two contracts.

I would guess something like $2.5 million annually over three years or $3 million annually over two seasons is how Boyle’s contract will ultimately shake out this summer.

Can Toronto afford it?

There are a couple of reasons to assume Boyle will end up back in a Maple Leafs uniform next season. First and foremost, he said he’s open to return to the team. I mean, obviously he isn’t going to say otherwise at a team’s locker room clean out media availability, but he was quoted saying he enjoyed his time with the team. Beyond that, you have to think it’d be odd for Lou Lamoriello to pay such a high acquisition cost for a player who the organization was only planning on keeping around for a month-and-a-half of play, considering where the team stands in its long-term rebuild.

Whether those are valid reasons for Boyle’s return to Toronto or just conjecture, the Leafs absolutely do have the cap room to keep him around. They currently have just under $61 million committed to their roster (12 forwards, six defencemen, and one goalie) next season, and $10 million of LTIR bonus will likely be added for Joffrey Lupul and Nathan Horton. After 2017-18 William Nylander, Connor Carrick, and James van Riemsdyk need new deals, but Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov’s contracts come off the shelf, and the following summer, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner’s entry-level deals will expire.

As of right now, one of Ben Smith or Frederik Gauthier is pencilled into that fourth line centre role. As we saw earlier, Boyle made the fourth much, much better. It would make sense for the team to offer him a two-year deal with a slightly higher cap hit than he could get on a three-year deal elsewhere, but with Boyle and Matt Martin, you’re looking at a pretty expensive fourth line.

If he hits the open market…

Brian Boyle would be an upgrade in just about any team’s bottom-six forward group. But based on where he’s at in his career, you have to assume he’s only interested in playing for a competitive team. I mean, if you’re 32 years old, have come close to winning it all on multiple occasions but came up short, that’s what you’d want too, right? 

Since he was dealt from Tampa Bay, there’s been talk about him returning as a free agent. He signed there in the first place, is obviously familiar with the team and city, and despite their down year, the Lightning are still a competitive team when healthy. But they’re in such a cap bind with Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Jonathan Drouin needing new deals that fitting Boyle in at the cap hit that he’s worth is virtually impossible. 

The Oilers badly need another bottom-six centre. The Penguins could also be in the market if they don’t re-sign Nick Bonino. The Ducks could be in that conversation too depending on who they lose in the expansion draft. There are going to be a handful of teams interested, especially those who are one or two pieces away from winning a Cup, meaning a return to Tampa on a team-friendly discount probably isn’t realistic. 

Other free agent profiles:

Forwards: T.J. OshieNick Bonino, Alexander Radulov 
Defencemen: Michael Del ZottoKevin ShattenkirkKarl Alzner 
Goalies: Ben BishopRyan Miller 

    • wiseguy

      He’s an elite 4th line center and an average 3rd line one. We have a more useful 4th line center in letestu as he plays the power play. Signing Boyle and pushing letestu up to the 3rd line is a bad option as he has shown to be less effective playing up with more minutes.

  • Tombstone

    If a free agent is looking for a reason not to sign in Edmonton all he has to do is read Oilersnation after an Oilers loss. Fans in Edmonton have a sense of entitlement and all they do is critize when the Oilers loose as if their team is perfect.

  • Oiler Al

    I question using the words “elite” and “fourth line center” in the same sentence.Watched Boyle closely, his idea of doing his job is taking the face off, and honestly he does very little else,even on a fourth line. Big and lazy is what I saw. total cupcake,.Stay away froim this guy.

  • deantheraven

    You know what would be really super swell? An article (or series) with all the teams projected protected lists and those who may be available at or before the Expansion draft and UFA day. Please?

  • Oil9744

    I was hoping Edmonton was going to get Boyle at the trade deadline, my guess is Toronto got him before Edmonton could but If he’s available for next season and the money is right then absolutely, I don’t see Deharnais here next season

  • toprightcorner

    Boyle was signed by Tampa to be a 3rd liner but has played mostly 4th line the past 2 years, jumping up to the 3rd line occasionally. If the market sees him as a 4th liner and on most teams that is where he would fit, I doubt he gets over $2 mill a year for 2 years. If a team feels he could be a 3rd line center, then I could see that number jumping to $2.75 mill a year. I think for Edm, if they don’t lose Letestu, Boyle could play 3rd line next year with Caggulia and Pulujarvi and be quite successful and score 15+ goals.

    The future plans Chairelli has for Nuge will dictate his interest in Boyle. If he plans to keep Nuge next year and trade him when McDavids new contract kicks in, I would guess he would want a little higher quality 3C and one that definitely shoots right. A competitive cant spend more than $1.75 mill on a 4C and Boyle would unbalance the cap.

    If PC plans to keep Nuge and trade Eberle instead, Boyle would be a great 3C fit.

    My preference would be to trade Nuge after next season, get a 20 goal 40 pt 3C that shoots right.

  • The Russian Rocket

    Boyle was an absolute beast in the faceoff circle during the playoffs for the Leafs. I’ve never seen a guy dominate like he did. He’s a good fourth liner in general but his faceoff ability probably makes him one of the best, if not the best 4C in the league. Worth a hefty 1 or 2 year contract.