LOS ANGELES — To say that 2008-09 has been an up-and-down season for Los Angeles Kings center Brian Boyle would certainly be an understatement.
Indeed, after starting the season with the Kings, Boyle played in fourteen games and was a healthy scratch for eight more before being assigned to the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate, on November 30, 2008.
During that stint with the Kings, Boyle, who was getting fourth-line center minutes, scored a goal and racked up twelve penalty minutes.
At the time, Boyle was expected to be a strong checking forward who could punish opponents, or at least move them off the puck using his 6-7, 252-pound frame. But more often than not, he was anything but and was sent to the minors with specific instructions to work on that part of his game.
With the Monarchs, Boyle put up four goals and seven assists for eleven points with 35 penalty minutes in thirteen games before being recalled by the Kings on December 3. He played in six games with the Kings, recording one assist.
Boyle did not show much improvement in the physical aspects of his game and was sent back to Manchester on January 17, 2009.
In his second stint with the Monarchs this season, Boyle scored six goals with four assists for ten points and racked up 38 penalty minutes in 29 games before his most recent recall to the big club on March 29.
So far, Boyle has three goals in four games in his current stint with the Kings and is showing glimpses of significant improvement in the physical aspects of the game.
“I think he’s had pretty significant improvement from the start of the year, as all of our young guys have,” said head coach Terry Murray. “We gave the checking part of our game the most emphasis right from training camp. That’s a learned skill and I didn’t think he had that down. He still doesn’t but it’s improved.”
Murray and the Kings coaching staff have worked to instill in Boyle what he needs to do to become the player he can, should and must be at the National Hockey League level.
“The part of the game that I want to see him continue to get better at is just using his size and strength to get pucks in the dots-to-boards areas, along the boards,” Murray explained. “Make plays. Protect the puck with his size—he’s a big man—and have the confidence and trust in your body that you can get the job done.”
“Boyle needs to show the kind of game he showed here tonight,” Murray elaborated after Boyle scored two goals and helped lead the Kings to a 6-1 blowout win over the Phoenix Coyotes at Staples Center on April 4. “Take away the two goals. Just show the intensity, show the board play, show the pursuit, moving your feet, confidence with the puck, make plays. Even on his breakouts, when the puck was coming to him in the middle of the ice, he handled the puck with confidence. He was getting his head up, he saw the ice and made plays. He needs to be that kind of player—play with an attitude and then the talent comes out.”
Indeed, Boyle just might be figuring out that in order to contribute offensively, he has to do the hard work to create the scoring opportunities.
“The attitude I have to have is to go out and try to create offense, try and score goals,” said Boyle. “How do you do that? It’s all those things that lead to that. If you’re in the defensive zone you have to bang the guy and take the puck from him and bring it up through the neutral zone and be strong there. You have to be strong on pucks and get it into the offensive zone, work hard, create and score.”
“It’s all connected, that’s what I’m learning up here,” added Boyle. “You can’t float, you can’t take even half a shift off because you’ll get exposed. You have to work hard in the defensive zone. That’s going to bring pucks out of the zone and into the offensive zone where you want to get to work and score goals.”
“It’s all three zones, it’s intensity everywhere, every shift, every second you’re on the ice. It’s being there for your teammates, being hard and just being reliable. When you have the puck on your stick, guys know it’s getting out and when you have it down low, you’re going to protect it.”
Boyle’s size gives him a considerable physical advantage over the vast majority of NHL players. His challenge is to learn to make good use of it. But that has not been a natural thing for him because of his skill.
“It’s a hard thing when it’s not an instinctive part of your game,” said Murray. “But to me, that’s a learned skill he needs to be pushed in that area. I’m going to push him. I think he’s starting to get a bit of a handle on what it’s going to take to play in the NHL.”
“There is a way that you have to play as a standard, at least, to play in this league and be a contributor to the team,” added Murray. “We want him to play here, this is the way we ask him to play. If we’re asking too politely it comes to a push and we have to push him.”
On April 4 against the Coyotes, Boyle scored two goals, including the eventual game-winner, both goals coming in the first period. It was easily his best game with the Kings, but not so much because of the two goals. Rather, what he did to create those scoring chances was what was most impressive.
On both plays, he got in on the forecheck and created turnovers that led to his goals.
“It was a great feeling to be able to help out,” said Boyle. “The first one was a good forecheck by all of us and [left wing Kyle] Calder made a great pass. I had a clear lane to the net. I got a lucky break on the second one. The puck came out on another forecheck play. They threw it out to me and I kind of took a one-timer.”
“That’s what we all want to do, they’ve been asking the whole team to do that,” added Boyle. “It was good to be able to get in and get a hit. Their guys lost it both times because we were coming with some pressure.”
“I thought it was real important for [Boyle] to play a good game here tonight,” said Murray. “We’ve been pushing him pretty hard in our meetings and he has good hands. When he gets in those situations he can do some damage in close. When you get it in the right spot and you’re able to finish—not everybody can do that—and Boyle shows the right touch around the net.”
The Kings certainly know Boyle has great hands for a player of his size. All they want is for him to start using his size all the time, on every shift and that is what he worked on while with the Monarchs this season.
“At Manchester, I thought I played well every single night, consistently,” he said. “If it wasn’t there offensively, it was there shutting guys down—just trying to do something to help the team every night.”
So what exactly has Boyle been working on?
“It’s trying to get better every game,” said Boyle. “I’m still doing the same things, just better. Down there, I played a lot of penalty-kill and was matching up against the other team’s top lines, trying to shut them down. We were pretty successful at that. I was getting chances. I was a little snake-bit, but it was good. I was in all situations and I played a lot of minutes.”
“I’ve improved on my speed a lot, taking defensemen wide,” added Boyle. “Even in college I didn’t do a lot of that. I used to dish to the wingers going to the net. But now I feel pretty good at taking guys wide, trying to use my reach to take it to the cage and into the blue paint area. That’s where I’m going to score goals.”
“That’s what [former Boston Bruins great] Cam Neely did. He beat guys wide, took shots and followed them to the net, crashed and banged. That’s what I was doing in Manchester and that’s what I want to keep doing here. The defensemen are a little better in the NHL and finding those holes is a little more difficult.”
For any young player, playing well on a consistent basis is the hard part, and Boyle is no exception to that.
“It’s a consistency thing,” he explained. “There were games earlier in the year when I think I did pretty well and other games where it was lacking. It’s something that has to be consistent. When it’s there, I feel pretty good. I just have to bring it every night. That’s part of being a pro—being mentally tough and come hard every single night.”
“I’ve always been [an] offensive [player],” he elaborated. “I want to score goals. But more important, if you want to stick in the NHL you’ve got to be able to be trusted [to do more than score goals]. If guys have the puck on the other team, I’m going to bang’em. I feel like I have decent enough ability where I can put pucks away with regularity, but I have to get those chances first. That’s the hardest part.”
“It’s all connected. It’s a consistency that every guy has to do to stay in the league. It’s trying to take advantage of what I’ve been blessed with. Use that and be dominant, not just try to get by. Try to get better and better and be a force.”
Boyle certainly knows what he needs to do to be the player he is expected to be, especially in terms of using his physical gifts, night in and night out. But when push comes to shove, the question is whether or not he has the mental toughness to take advantage of the potential combination of size, strength and skill that he has been blessed with.
“He’s got that answer,” said Murray. “I’ll keep doing the same thing as far as demanding more but he has to make his mind up that he’s going to bring that intensity, that attitude and that kind of game,” Murray emphasized. “That’s up to the player. We’ve all been though those kinds of times when you’re unsure and you haven’t quite figured it out. But the bottom line is if you have the tools—the size, the strength, the skill—then it’s a matter of making your mind up. It becomes a mental game. Now it’s up to him to keep going.”
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