The Leafs are currently in an odd position in the standings. They are five points out of second place in the Atlantic and five points out of third in line for the last wild card spot, tied with Tampa. They are not holding a secure playoff position at all.
I think, in the new reality of more parity in the league, the question of buying or selling at the deadline has to be looked at anew. The issue isn’t are you in the playoffs or not, it's are are you contending or not. And the answer for the Leafs seems to be no. I don’t think anyone thinks they’re making a run for the cup.
But if they are perhaps in the playoffs, but not a contender, what are they doing buying a pending UFA?
They did not get an extension deal; this is not the Frederik Andersen deal; this is something else. It's a gamble.
And gambles should be evaluated at the time, not six months from now. But what are the Leafs betting on?
The losing condition is simple. The Leafs don’t make the playoffs and Boyle does not re-sign. That’s when you look like the Boston Bruins and everyone laughs at you.
What’s their win condition?
Normally a team in a precarious spot gets a rental to fill one hole and uses him to push them over the line to sucess. That’s certainly what the Los Angeles Kings say they are doing in getting fellow Lightning UFA Ben Bishop. But despite all the despair over the centre depth and the state of the fourth line on the Leafs, is one depth player going to push the Leafs over the top?
The top of what? The wild card race? The first round?
What does Brian Boyle bring to the Leafs?
Beyond his on-ice play, I think he embodies what Mike Babcock means when he says, "a good pro". And he says that a lot. If you concede that Roman Polak is a good role model for how to conduct yourself as a serious professional who plays the game to win it, then Boyle is a man who does that and actually succeeds at the winning part.
He has played 100 playoff games according to Elite Prospects. Nazem Kadri has played seven. James van Riemsdyk has played 46, only seven with the Leafs. Polak has 49. Boyle is in a class by himself here.
He is also a message to the rest of the team. Clearly he is meant to set the standard of commitment to the game and to winning that Babcock wants all of his players to meet. But just by trading for a rental right now the Leafs are sending a different message to the team.
The Leafs are saying they believe in their lineup of rookies, that they think they can win. They are also saying they expect them to win. This is the proverbial keys to the car for a teenager. It’s trust, but it’s also expectation.
The Leafs are speaking to the hockey world too. They are saying that they will be the right landing spot for a competitive veteran. Sure, they tossed Brooks Laich aside, and he didn’t like that, but Boyle has been better than Laich for a long time.
Let’s not get carried away about Boyle though. He’s one of the best fourth line centres, but he is not more than that.
I did an analysis of three years of data in the summer for all the players who had fourth line minutes. I looked at a lot of things: shot rates, individual shooting, scoring, first assists, shots against, their on-ice save percentage (to find the lucky or unlucky players). I was looking at Matt Martin. As often happens, I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Three names kept popping up on the very good end of the list as I looked at this 150 or so players. J.T. Brown, Cedric Paquette and Brian Boyle. I had found the real best fourth line in hockey.
But the jump from the fourth line to a scoring line is a big one on the Leafs. They don’t really have a one, two or three, they have three ones. Or maybe it’s more truthful to say they have three twos who have aspirations to be first lines.
Martin, by the way, was solidly mediocre, and never at the bottom of any marker. He is exactly what he purports to be, a good shot suppressing fourth liner.
So the gamble is, will the Leafs make the playoffs and go deep enough for all the life lessons a man like Boyle can teach to be tied to a successful outcome? It’s a Michael Grabner shorthanded breakaway, but is it happening in 2016 or 2017?
Tell me what you think. Not about the price paid or how much better he is than Ben Smith. Tell me if you think this was a good gamble or not.