Player: Brian Boyle
Born: December 18, 1984 (age-37 season)
Weight: 245 pounds
Hometown: Hingham, Mass
Draft: 26th overall (first round, 2003 by Los Angeles)
2021-22 Statistics: 66 games played —11 goals, 10 assists, 21 points, 27 penalty minutes
Contract Status: Boyle earned a one-year contract at league minimum salary in 2021-22 with Pittsburgh after a strong preseason (and in part because of an opening the Pens had at the center ice position with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin out at the start of the season). Boyle is going back into free agency this summer, after a somewhat minor May knee surgery.
Fun facts: Boyle’s 8.0 hits/60 was the second most among Penguin forwards (min. 11 games played)....His average of 1:53 short-handed ice time per game ranked third among Penguin forwards...Boyle has three of the Pens’ 12 total fighting majors, to lead the Pens this season in that category...Boyle’s 11 goals ranked tied-ninth on the team..
Boyle recorded an assist in Game 3 and Game 4 wins, but then suffered a knee injury on the second shift of Game 6 and would have been out for 4-6 weeks had the season kept going.
Story of the Season
Boyle’s season was one of perseverance. Only on a tryout contract, it was an uphill battle for him to simply be in the NHL this season after not finding anyone interested in signing him last season. The Pens needed some center help at the start of the year, but it wasn’t a smooth start for Boyle or always a sure thing he would end up as a staple of the lineup early on in the year. Boyle only scored 2G+0A in the first 16 games of the season in a fourth line role. In December, a lower body injury lingered and kept Boyle out for the majority of the games in that month. He was also occasionally a healthy scratch as well, and it looked like he potentially could be on the outs when Malkin was set to return in January.
Calendar year 2022 was good to Boyle, however, who continued to build his game as the season went along. He found ways to stay relevant and pitch in where he could — like getting in fights in back-to-back games on January 20th-23rd, the latter fight standing up for teammate Teddy Blueger who had his jaw broken with a high hit. In a cruel irony, Blueger’s subsequent trip to the IR (shortly after Malkin came back) meant the Pens still needed an extra center a while longer, and the need for Boyle to play down the middle and help on the PK was re-established.
And then, crazy enough, the points started coming, often in bunches. Boyle had four different stretches of two-game point streaks in 2022, which may not blow anyone away, but was super-impressive in a low minute role. Other fourth liners like Zach Aston-Reese, Dominik Simon, Drew O’Connor and Sam Lafferty had tougher stretches of production.
It was perhaps Boyle’s second-half strengthening that allowed the Pens to trade Aston-Reese and Simon, knowing that they had a PKer to replace them.
Boyle’s perseverance and surprisingly solid season culminated with a sixth place finish in the voting for the Masterton Trophy.
Boyle: "I love to play the game. I think it's the greatest game in the world. I've loved it since I can remember. So to be recognized by the PHWA for being dedicated to it, with all these guys that are so dedicated and have overcome and accomplished a lot, it's humbling." pic.twitter.com/XcEezn4OkN— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 26, 2022
Regular season 5v5 advanced stats
Data via Natural Stat Trick. Ranking is out of 17 forwards on the team who qualified by playing a minimum of 150 minutes.
Corsi For%: 49.7% (13th)
Goals For%: 54.8% (8th)
xGF%: 50.8% (14th)
Scoring Chance %: 47.5% (16th)
High Danger Scoring Chance%: 48.7% (17th)
5v5 on-ice shooting%: 7.6% (10th)
On-ice save%: 93.3% (6th)
Goals/60: 1.1 (3rd)
Assist/60: 0.94 (20th)
Points/60: 1.99 (7th)
—Fourth line grinders with limited minutes usually aren’t advanced stat darlings in terms of shot and chance-based metrics, but Boyle did really well at age-37 to at least help to see the Pens generate slightly more goals than opponents while on the ice, and well enough to stay above water on actual goals, despite giving up a majority of chances. Goaltending was helpful, but it could also be said that a defensively responsible player like Boyle probably also helped goaltending by keeping more shots to the outside and away from the middle of the ice.
—The magic for Boyle is in the 1.99 Points/60. Of the 387 forwards across the NHL who played 500+ minutes this season, Boyle finished tied-112th in his P/60. This is probably a result of good coaching and usage more than anything, since playing Boyle more likely wouldn’t have resulted in keeping up that rate of scoring, but it is a credit to Boyle that he was something of a difference-maker offensively when he was on the ice.
What stands out the most in Boyle’s three-year look is the missing data in 2020-21, when Boyle couldn’t find employment in the NHL. For about any then-36-year old grinder, that almost always means a NHL playing career has concluded. But it wasn’t in this case! Boyle’s finishing and defensive inputs in Pittsburgh were quite good, and big improvements over his last work in Florida back in 2019-20. Wins Above Replacement (WAR%) had him at slightly over 50% for this season, an impressive achievement and again one with the player making the most of an opportunity and a coach not over-extending the proper role with too much ice time.
The microstats aren’t kind to Boyle. As a very old player who never was the most skilled even in his prime, he now has slow hands and is basically useless when it comes to passing the puck or creating chances off his playmaking (it’s pretty remarkable he had 10 assists this season with lower-line teammates, quite frankly). Boyle isn’t very dynamic with the puck at the NHL level at this stage of his career.
But Boyle still has shown the ability to finish chances, usually from close to the net, and has the experience and talent to produce goals. Microstats for a player like this don’t truly mean too much or tell too much that isn’t known. This isn’t a player who had a job because he was needed or expected to advance the puck in the neutral zone. The team had enough other options for that.
Boyle was in the lineup to get in on the forecheck, play a physical game and throw his body around to knock opponents around, block some shots, try to win faceoffs and kill some penalties in one of the tougher and less glamorous roles on the team so that other centers didn’t have to take that job.
Boyle flashed his hands and goal-scoring ability with a highlight reel goal by anyone’s definition in one of the sweeter looking goals of the Pens’ season against Arizona in January. With all sincerity, I think this is one of the best goals of the year.
Okay, Brian Boyle... You FANCYYYYY. pic.twitter.com/3Z10euCNsT— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 26, 2022
Despite not being a very fast skater in his advanced age, Boyle was one of the team’s more effective forecheckers, often using his size and physicality to literally make an impact in the hitting game. A big thump here against Carolina helped cause a turnover and eventually Boyle slings in a goal from a nice setup by Teddy Blueger.
Brian Boyle is makin' a big impact early pic.twitter.com/uCDgWzrLQw— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) March 13, 2022
Similarly, this hit in the playoffs and pass for Evan Rodrigues got the Pens to open up Game 3 lead was a big play created off the forecheck, and another good reminder that not every player in Sullivan’s system needs to be the same (i.e. a smallish, skilled, fast winger) in order to be effective.
Evan Rodrigues has two goals and an assist in Game 3... and we still have two periods of hockey to go. pic.twitter.com/q5x2siOHhr— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) May 7, 2022
Fighting to the front of the net, finding the puck and swatting it in isn’t as pretty as some goals, but counts just the same. A wise player, Boyle knows where the majority of goals are scored in the NHL and how to get there.
Boyle went to the net and good things happened pic.twitter.com/estA4ylEBG— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 13, 2022
This goal was bad goaltending, but still showed some nice patience and placement to lift the puck up to the top of the net in the final minute of the period to give the Pens a lead over the Capitals.
Part 2:— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 9, 2022
37 years old and still makin' magic, Big Boyle style. pic.twitter.com/s24unMfmmy
We all know that Brian Boyle is a survivor in more ways than one, personally and professionally. He found a way to remain an NHL player this season, and not only that but to stay in the lineup for the majority of games for one of the league’s better teams this season while being past the average retirement age. He was an easy player to root for as a great story, good teammate. He could play wing, he could play center. He was able to add size and physicality and was always willing to step up and settle the score with a fight if necessary. The Pens ended up needing Boyle perhaps more then they could have even imagined in the fall. For his part and fortunately for the team, Boyle had more to offer then most probably could have thought, too.
Turning 38 a few months into next season, finding an employer would be the key for next year for Boyle. A well-traveled person, he has played for eight different NHL clubs and might need to find a ninth as the Pens look to get younger with other NHL options (Radim Zohorna, Drew O’Connor, Filip Hallander and Sam Poulin could all be competing for the fourth line role Boyle filled this season).
Question to ponder
Seeking what has been an ever-elusive Stanley Cup victory, the sands in the hourglass of Boyle’s playing career can’t have much time left before running out, and perhaps voluntarily or involuntarily could already be done. But will he get one more shot? Boyle and the Penguins had a positive and mutually beneficial experience this season, should the team look to bring him back as a player next season? Or is it time for them move on for a younger replacement moving forward?
How would you grade Brian Boyle’s 2021-22 season?
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