While the New Jersey Devils did not accomplish much in free agency on July 1, they did make one signing: Brian Boyle. The Devils signed the 32-year old center to a two-year deal worth $5.1 million. At the time, I liked the signing. So did most of the readers, or at least those who voted in the poll in the post about that transaction. I wrote the following in that post:
I like this signing for a number of reasons. This strengthens a part of the lineup that was a rotating menagerie of forwards last season. Boyle may not be a big-minute player and he certainly will not add a whole lot of offense. But he can step in right away on the PK and he can make a third or fourth line more competent. Those are not massive roles but with the real possibility of Jacob Josefson moving on and few of that group of forwards who never really grasped the “brass ring” in last season (e.g. Sergey Kalinin, Vernon Fiddler, etc.), it was a hole to be filled. Not the most important one, but one that could be filled today and it appears that it was.
When I wrote that, it was amid frantically grabbing a number of details on top of what I thought about Boyle from the past. Now that the dust has more than settled on this year’s Free Agency Frenzy - which was hardly a frenzy for the Devils - I think it is a good time to take a closer look.
Let’s take a step back and consider where the Devils were last season. They were bad. Among their many issues, their bottom six was a rotating cast of characters. Between injuries, transactions, and just plain poor performances, plenty of Devils received an opportunity to center the team’s third and fourth lines. Eight different players took more than a hundred faceoffs for the Devils last season. Only two of those eight averaged more than twelve minutes of even strength icetime: Zajac and Henrique. As Pavel Zacha switched time between the left wing and center positions in addition to playing higher up in the lineup at points; we should focus on the remaining five players. They were, in no particular order, Vernon Fiddler, Jacob Josefson, Blake Coleman, Sergey Kalinin, and Joseph Blandisi. These five forwards centered the fourth line for stretches at a time last season. It is not an exhaustive list. It does not include Blake Pietila, Kevin Rooney, or those handful of games where Devante Smith-Pelly started at center. So let us focus on those five centers. With those five rotating in and out of that fourth line center spot, the hope is that the recently-signed Boyle would be an improvement over any of them.
Based on last season’s results, the numbers back up that hope.
The best way I can show this off is through the WoodMoney method of quality of competition. PuckIQ.com is a new resource online that easily displays how a player performed against three levels of competition by Corsi For percentage and Goals For percentage among other metrics. Those three levels are against the Elite, the best of the best in the NHL; the Middle, which represents the majority of players; and Gritensity, which represents those lower tier players that do not play that much - usually fourth liners. The site even breaks down how much a player plays against these levels of competition. To that end, I compared the various numbers of the five Devils centers in question (Fiddler, Josefson, Coleman, Kalinin, and Blandisi) with Boyle.
First, here’s how they stack up in terms of how much they played against the three levels of competition in 5-on-5 situations. The numbers in parentheses are their actual time on ice from PuckIQ:
While Boyle certainly played more, the breakdown of ice time percentage by competition level is comparative with Fiddler and Kalinin. The usage of Josefson, Coleman, and Blandisi ended up with a heavy lean on the middle level; but they did not face tougher minutes. The larger point is that this shows that Boyle’s usage last season was something similar to what a bottom six center on the Devils received last season.
Now for the meat: I listed every player’s Corsi For percentage (CF%) and Goals For percentage (GF%) for each level of competition.
Immediately, you can see two things. The Devils were beaten in possession and in goal difference at nearly every level with either of these five forwards. The exceptions: Josefson’s goals for percentage was positive against the weakest level; and only Blandisi managed to be above 50% CF% - which is a break even point - for two levels. It could be argued that Blandisi and Josefson were the best of a crummy bunch, but that is not saying much.
Now look at Boyle. He actually was witness - and likely played a big role - in out-attempting the elite competition last season. Moreso against weaker levels of competition. That’s a line of progression that one would want to see across the levels. Sure, Fiddler, Kalinin, and Coleman have that too but they started out in a possession pit and ended in a shallower pit. Boyle went from strength to strength. The only downside in Boyle’s numbers was the GF% against the mid-range competition, but even that stands out in comparison to the Devils’ percentages.
There are two caveats with these figures. First, PuckIQ does not (yet?) split up results by teams. Last season, Boyle played for Tampa Bay and Toronto and Fiddler was a Devil and a Predator. How did each fare on those teams? Fortunately, Natural Stat Trick does provide splits in CF% by team for those who played on more than one team. We can use that information to at least make a guess at it. Per Natural Stat Trick, Boyle’s CF% fell quite a bit in Toronto: 53.54% down to 50.56%. It is worth noting his offensive zone start ratio also fell from a low 46.92% with the Bolts to an extremely low 29.51% with the Leafs. His usage surely played a role in that drop. It was even worse for Fiddler, who saw his numbers crater as he received Malhotra-like zone starts. Unlike Malhotra, he didn’t really succeed. If anything, this suggests to me that the above numbers for Boyle and Fiddler are lower than what they were before their respective trades. It is something to keep in mind - and to marvel at Boyle still coming out ahead in CF% despite his Toronto experience.
Second, Boyle was on better possession and scoring teams than New Jersey. Per Natural Stat Trick, Tampa Bay and Toronto were above 50% CF% as a team whereas the Devils had the the fourth lowest CF% in the NHL at 47.8%. It could be argued that Boyle had a better supporting cast to have him reach the numbers that he has. While PuckIQ only has data for the 2016-17 season, there are several seasons of With or Without You charts at Hockey Analysis. They show that while Boyle played with some great players in Tampa Bay, especially Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, Boyle managed a CF% above 50% away from most of his teammates. Whether it was within only this past season, the past two seasons, or the past three seasons; Boyle maintained a positive CF% even with a low offensive zone start ratio. That suggests to me that he is a positive possession player in general. So while I would agree that it would too much to immediately drive the play like he’s Beau Bennett, it would be fair to say he’s an upgrade over Fiddler, Josefson, Coleman, Kalinin, and Blandisi.
Even with those caveats, this shows that Boyle really has been a cut above those five. That there is reason to believe he is an upgrade at center for the Devils is important. This is a re-building team. No, an upgrade at the fourth line center spot (or third line center spot) is not as big of a deal as the team’s defense, issues with passing and puck possession, coaching, or offensive play in general. It still was a problem that for ten minutes per game in 5-on-5 situational play, the Devils were beaten regardless of the competition in general. It still was a problem to not have enough forwards to take a difficult zone start in spots. It still was a problem such that the coaching staff rotated so many players in and out of center beyond the two mainstays of Zajac and Henrique. No, Boyle isn’t going to be the key difference maker that will turn the team around. He does make the team better and provided he stays healthy (which is likely, he has not missed too many games in his career), he’ll secure a part of the lineup so the coaches can focus on other, more pressing issues. That the Devils went out and obtained him quickly also suggests that he was brought in to address an issue. That’s effectively what re-building is; addressing issues to become better.
In short, what I wrote in haste on July 1 turned out to be correct by these metrics. The narrative, as it were, appears to be true. Again, I do not think Boyle will necessarily come in and start driving the bus from the back end of the forward lineup. And those caveats are true. But, based on last season, Boyle was still a superior player in a similar role compared what Fiddler, Josefson, Coleman, Kalinin, and Blandisi served at points on the Devils last season. It is reasonable to see him as providing an upgrade to the Devils based on his 5-on-5 play alone.
What do you think of Boyle knowing this? Do you agree that he will provide an upgrade to the team for next season? What do you expect from him? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Boyle in the comments. Thank you for reading.