More than a month into the Norfolk Admirals' season, the stock of certain players is rising while that of others has dipped. The likes of Daryl Boyle and Blair Jones have caught Coach Darren Rumble's eye as pleasant surprises while Wyatt Smith and Chris Lawrence have disappointed him to a degree.
Boyle was overlooked at the start of the season. The team's top rookie was considered to be fellow defenseman Ty Wishart and free-agent signees like Smith, Brandon Bochenski, Andrew Hutchinson and Zenon Konopka were accorded higher profiles.
But who's in the limelight now? With a plus-10 rating in only eight games, it's Boyle who's become part of Norfolk's backbone and a Rumble favorite.
“He's one of our top three defensemen,” the coach said of a player who skated in just one of the first nine games. “There's no plan to take him out of the lineup anytime soon.”
While Wishart, a former first-round draft pick, had one point and an even rating in 14 games, Boyle had a goal and five assists in slightly more than half as many contests. Not bad for an undrafted player who's one of his team's smaller rearguards at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds.
Boyle, a 20-year old Lethbridge, Alberta, native, played four solid but unspectacular junior seasons for the Brandon (Man.) Wheat Kings in the Western Hockey League. He acquitted himself well in six Admirals games at the end of last season, but Rumble wasn't fully sold.
“I liked what I saw but we were out of the hunt and teams might not have been throwing their `A' game at us,” the coach said. “You have to be careful of making reads on players in that situation.”
But Boyle also played well during 2008 rookie camp in Traverse City, Mich., and was chugging along during Admirals training camp when his play suddenly fell off. His passes and shots were fluttering and he began to mishandle the puck under pressure. Rumble was puzzled.
Turns out, Boyle had run out of his stick pattern and had to use a different type of twig. He never used it as an excuse, but when a batch of his regular sticks showed up, his game came around.
“He gets them and starts playing like a 10-year pro,” Rumble laughed. “I guess even Tiger Woods would have trouble if you had him use new clubs at The Masters.”
Another player Rumble is happy with is Jones, although in the forward's case, the statistics don't necessarily coincide with the coach's assessment. The third-year pro had a goal, seven points and a minus-6 rating in 16 games, but hadn't missed a contest and was adjusting to a move from center to wing.
Rumble made that move because he didn't think Jones played strong defense low in his own zone, a crucial responsibility for a pivot. A wing, on the other hand, is somewhat anchored to the sideboards and has a bit less to think about in his own end.
“I'm trying to turn him into a guy who can play third line for Tampa,” Rumble said of the Lightning's fourth-round pick in the 2005 entry draft. “To do that, he's got to be flawless defensively. He skates well and has a great shot but if you look at his history, he's never been a big offensive numbers guy.”
Rumble said he's less enthused with the early play of Smith and Lawrence. Smith, a 30-year-old wing who's played more than 200 NHL games, had two goals and four points in 15 Norfolk games. That's unexpectedly low production for a player who's historically been better.
Rumble said his diagnosis is that Smith “lost some focus” after signing with Tampa Bay early in the summer and then seeing the Lightning bring in a slew of other free agents after him.
“He'd admit he didn't show up for training camp in very good condition and I'd be lying if I didn't say more was expected from him,” Rumble said. “But he's as smart as they come on the ice and I'd look for him to have a good second half.”
If Lawrence wants to turn his season around, he'll have to start with the Augusta (Ga.) Lynx, ECHL affiliate of the Admirals and Lightning. A third-round pick by Tampa Bay in the 2005 entry draft, Lawrence had one assist in 10 Norfolk games before he was reassigned.
“If he's not ready to contribute to our lineup, we're doing him a disservice by not having him play and develop,” Rumble said. “He's got an NHL body and ability but I question his willingness to become the power forward he's going to need to be.
“He has to run over people and fight if it comes to that and he's got to decide in his mind if he's willing to do it.”