LOS ANGELES — On June 27, 2009, during the 2009 National Hockey League Entry Draft, then-Los Angeles Kings center prospect Brian Boyle was traded to the New York Rangers for a third round pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
Much was expected of Boyle, a 6-7, 248-pound center with a scoring touch who was selected by the Kings in the first round (26th overall) in 2003 NHL Entry Draft. At the time, former Kings General Manager Dave Taylor said that he would be a project, but in Boyle’s four years at Boston College, he excelled.
Even at the American Hockey League level, Boyle was a solid contributor offensively for the Manchester Monarchs, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate, even though the Kings tried to convert him to a defenseman, an experiment that failed miserably.
But even with his great physical gifts, especially for a player with his size and strength, Boyle has still been unable to figure out, even with the Rangers, that he has to use his those gifts in order to succeed in the NHL, something the Kings tried to get him to learn.
Although Boyle showed flashes of the grit he will need to succeed at the NHL level, most of the time, he failed to win the physical battles along the boards and in the corners, or worse, was a spectator, just a few feet away.
Boyle’s four goals and two assists for six points in 51 games this season, along with his average ice time of just 8:26, indicate that he still has not learned that lesson.
Like Boyle, Kings right wing Teddy Purcell is facing the same challenges, even though he does not possess Boyle’s size and strength. But to this point in his NHL career, Purcell has been unable to add the necessary grit to his game and that begs the question:
If Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi could give up on Boyle because he could not play with enough grit, will he do the same with Purcell?
Probably not, at least, not as quickly.
Although he has struggled mightily this season, scoring just three goals with three assists for six points in 39 games while averaging 11:34 in ice time, Purcell’s problem is not in his chest, according to Lombardi.
Rather, his problem is confidence, or a lack thereof.
“At times, he shows those flashes,” Lombardi said. “The thing about Teddy, first he had to learn grit, which improved. Then, all of a sudden, he lost his confidence. When I saw him running the power play along the half-wall, he was turning over pucks and I’m thinking, whoa! I know we [didn’t] have Ryan Smyth here, but I know one thing, [Purcell] can handle the puck on the power play, make plays and get guys to back off. If you give him space, he can rip you apart.”
“That totally went south,” Lombardi added. “I was talking to [head coach Terry Murray] and I said, whoa, this ain’t right. If I see him pull up at times, or not being gritty, that I know has never been part of his game and he’s got to talk himself into it. But this business of him turning over pucks and pucks being like grenades on his stick? That I know is completely in [his] head, because I know he can do it and he’s shown that, even when he came up last year. ‘You give me space and I can do some damned good things with [the puck].’”
“The trouble is, when you get up to this level, you [have less space]. But when he’s had space, it’s blown up on him. Now he’s got to go the other way. You’ve got to start believing in yourself, Teddy. Work hard, but when you’ve got the puck, just do what God gave you here.”
Purcell was always a scorer at lower levels and did not need to play the hard, heavy game required for success in the NHL and the Kings have had to continually push him to add that to his game.
“I’ve seen the kid go through that transformation,” Lombardi explained. “[We’ve been] on him to [play the hard, heavy game that Murray frequently speaks of].”
“You make your living your whole life—you were the third-leading scorer in the [AHL],” Lombardi elaborated. “He came right in out of college—that’s one hell of a track record to do what he did. That all came naturally. Now you bring him up and [we told him] that was really good, what you did in the minors. But that’s not going to play up here unless you add some grit. You have to get your nose dirty.”
“So now he totally focuses on that, but now he gets the puck and [he tenses up]. [We want him to get into that hard, heavy mindset] when you don’t have [the puck], but when you do get it, do what you do naturally.”
But to this point in the 2009-10 season, Purcell has rarely displayed the necessary grit, or offensive production, for that matter. As a result, he has found himself watching games from above as a healthy scratch in eleven games, including nine of the last eleven games.
Lombardi explained that young players often struggle with being challenged to do more.
“Sometimes that’s hard when you try and challenge a kid to do [more],” he said. “[They’ll say], ‘but I’m a skill guy.’ No, we’re not turning you into a checker. But what happens a lot of times when you tell this to kids or agents—we’re not trying to change your game. We’re trying to add to your game. There’s a huge difference.”
“We signed you to be this, but you can’t do [that] unless you do this,” he added. “But they all think you’re trying to change their game. No. Add to your game. As easy as it sounds, it’s very tough for an athlete to do that, particularly when [he has] had success at every level. What he did in the AHL as a rookie is very unusual. I’ve got to be careful with him. He’s become better up here, but if you know Teddy, he’s very young. He’s got a lot [to do] to get stronger up here.”
“The only thing about Teddy, I do know he loves the game. That much is there, but a lot of times, for those kids who are skilled, it’s been so easy for them their whole lives, right up through the AHL, so this is a whole new experience. It’s a radical departure from everything they’ve done, so you have to be careful.”
Lombardi noted that Purcell’s confidence is totally shot.
“When he’s on the half-wall on the power play, he should be money in the bank getting that guy to back off, with that little subtlety, with the hand drops—you know how guys can get space without even moving their feet? He’s money in the bank,” said Lombardi. “When he starts losing that, you know the confidence is all gone.”
“When I saw him, at times, handling the puck along the half-wall—just the way he was stick-handling,” added Lombardi. “The defensive player can smell it like a dog. But when a guy’s got confidence, [he thinks], ‘c’mon, c’mon,’ and [he] just pulls it back a little and the [defensive player] has to change his angle. All very subtle. So when I saw the pucks exploding and [defenders easily] getting their sticks [on the puck frequently] and poke-checking him, I thought, ‘whoa, that’s way off.’”
The questions are: Will Purcell ever regain his confidence and add the grit he needs to be the impact player he is expected to become and how much time does he have to put it all together?
“We need him to be better,” Lombardi stressed. “He’s got to start figuring it out, I’m not denying that. But what I see now—when pucks start exploding on him—you have to be careful, if you ever decide to give up on a guy. That’s not the reason I can give up on him because I know that’s going to come back. That is in him. It’s a lack of confidence right now. That part’s going to come. But the other stuff? He’s got to figure out if he’ll ever [get that].”
“If he ever puts it together, you’ve got a guy who can play on a good team. If he doesn’t, I think he’s still going to play [in the NHL], but he’s not going to be on a good team.”
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