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?
Brian Boyle says he's open to returning to the #leafs. The pending free agent doesn't know where everyone stands, though.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) April 25, 2017
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.
— NHL (@NHL) April 16, 2017
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.