Questioning Dan Boyle as a healthy scratch

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Boyle

The Rangers beat the Washington Capitals on Tuesday in a game that featured some pretty goals but some ugly defensive play on the part of the home team. Despite their victory they were badly outpossessed in the second and third periods, finding themselves frequently pinned in their own defensive end. The game drew into high relief the Rangers need to play a stronger defensive game, especially against top teams such as Washington, and was notable in part for the absence of Dan Boyle. Perhaps the Rangers could have used the talents of the veteran puck moving defenseman on Tuesday, given how difficult it was for them to exit their own zone at times and given Boyle’s strong first pass out of the zone and positive influence on possession.

Let’s start with Alain Vigneault’s reasons for scratching Boyle. Despite complimenting his defensive play and composure in one on one situations, the Rangers head coach described a need for “quicker decisions with the puck” and noted that he was brought to New York in order to help with puck movement and the power play. AV also made note of the fact that at 39, Boyle is in need of some adjustments due to his age. Still though it seems strange to bench a veteran player for his lack of offensive production when he’s been posting overwhelmingly positive possession numbers in his last few games.

In the five games preceding his healthy scratch on Tuesday, Dan Boyle had an average CF (Corsi-For) of 53.5%, almost a full ten percent higher than his defensive partner Marc Staal averaged in those same games at 43.95%, and 3.5% higher than the average for Rangers defensemen of 50%. For broader comparison, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi came in at an average CF of 50% and 48.5% over those same five games, and Keith Yandle and Kevin Klein had averages of 52.4% and 51.9%, respectively. While these numbers need to be contextualized in terms of who’s playing against other teams’ toughest competition, it’s still notable Boyle demonstrates a substantially higher share of the offense on ice than almost any of the others. While his CF was 40% in the game directly preceding his scratch, it’s important to note that he was right in the middle of the pack for Rangers defensemen that game in terms of that stat, higher than Girardi’s 39.3% and Staal’s 32%.

All of this is to say that if driving play is the issue for Dan Boyle, it would seem to be a bigger issue for the rest of the Rangers defense corps. Even taking into consideration things like zone starts and the opposing teams’ competition, it’s hard to deny that Boyle’s share of possession while on ice is impressive, especially when compared to that of his defensive partner Marc Staal. His worst game of the five preceding the healthy scratch was on the 30th against the Maple Leafs, and one game seems to be a pretty short leash for an otherwise well credentialed defenseman, especially given the performances of other veteran d-men.

I realize that perhaps not all readers are as inclined to CF% statistics as some however, and so below are a few GIFs of solid defensive play from Boyle. While these examples of solid defensive play from number 22 are from earlier in the season and his scratch is more related to his offensive play as of late, I think it’s worthwhile to consider that he has some defensive savvy which, taken together with his solid offensive abilities, could have been of some help in an otherwise tough game on Tuesday against the Caps and are certainly worth taking into future consideration when looking at lineup decisions.

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On this play, Boyle breaks up a 2-on-1 against Montreal without snow angeling himself out of the play.

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Here Boyle stops Patrick Kane on a rush in the zone. Kane is one of the fastest and more gifted offensive players in the game.

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Finally, we see Boyle rubbing Jonathan Toews out of the play.

While I am questioning the logic of scratching Dan Boyle and proposing that he at the very least might have been able to ease the Rangers’ possession woes somewhat on Tuesday night, I think it’s important that I offer a few caveats. The first is that Boyle hasn’t yet produced any points so far this season, and that the Rangers’ power play has not been great. The second is that Boyle is being held to such high standards precisely because he is a veteran player and because he is a specific type of defenseman. Although I personally find it strange to hold him to different standards than other veteran players, other –including the coaching staff– might disagree and are free to do so. It should also be noted that if scratching him was meant in a way to motivate better play, Boyle’s CF% following his previous healthy scratch was 68.2%, so perhaps this will have a similar effect on his game. Finally, these decisions don’t occur in a vacuum, with considerations like Dylan McIlrath’s playing time also coming into play.

I’ll also be the first to note that despite being a fan of his game, and despite believing that his strong puck moving abilities could have perhaps eased the Rangers’ possession woes on Tuesday, this is all conjecture, and that nearly every member of the team took a shellacking against Washington so he may not have helped much in any event. Somehow despite that, and despite lacking Dan Boyle’s strong offensive play, they still managed to eke out a victory.