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Brian Boyle fills immediate needs for Maple Leafs

Playoff-tested center should help Toronto immensely

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Brian Boyle was napping at home on Monday, preparing to play for the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Ottawa Senators in a few hours, when he woke up to learn he wasn't a member of the Lightning anymore.

He had been traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a second-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft and minor league forward Byron Froese.

What to do first? Pack? Shower? He felt mixed emotions: sadness about leaving his buddies; disappointment in the Lightning, a popular preseason Stanley Cup pick, ranking 12th in the Eastern Conference; excitement about joining a team with Original Six heritage and talented rookies like Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner.

"They have some guys in there that are just phenomenal, phenomenal players that are going to be really good, so it's an opportunity," Boyle said. "I moved up in the standings in a matter of a couple of hours. It's exciting for me. Playoffs are obviously by far the most fun hockey I've ever been able to have a chance to play."

Playoffs are what this trade was all about -- and not just in the short term, even though Boyle is a pending unrestricted free agent.

The Maple Leafs haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967, the longest drought in the League, and have made the playoffs once in the past 11 years. President Brendan Shanahan, general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Mike Babcock are trying to return Toronto to glory by improving the personnel and raising the standard.

Video: Maple Leafs acquire Brian Boyle from Lightning

Entering Monday, the Maple Leafs were in a tight race. They held the second wild card into the playoffs from the East, five points behind the Montreal Canadiens for first in the Atlantic Division and one point ahead of the New York Islanders for the first spot outside the picture.

Boyle fills immediate hockey needs. He's big at 6 feet 6, 244 pounds. He's a bottom-six center. He wins faceoffs, kills penalties, blocks shots. But he is also an experienced, vocal leader. He has played 100 playoff games in stints with the New York Rangers and the Lightning, appearing in the Eastern Conference Final four times and the Stanley Cup Final twice.

It's important for the Maple Leafs to make the playoffs for the sake of this season. It's even more important for the Maple Leafs to make the playoffs for the sake of future seasons, so Matthews, Marner and other young players learn and grow.

When Babcock took over the Detroit Red Wings in 2005-06, he had young players like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and veterans to mentor them, including Shanahan and Steve Yzerman, now the Lightning GM. Datsyuk and Zetterberg helped the Red Wings keep winning after Shanahan, Yzerman and others departed.

Asked in December how he would establish a standard like he had in Detroit without veterans like that in the locker room, he said, "That's a great, great, great question." He listed players like Datsyuk, Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews and said, "What makes them special, it's sure talent, but it's the man they are and the drivetrain they are. … But unless you see it, unless you're these guys seeing it … but if you don't have it in your locker room …"

He didn't finish his thought, but you get the point.

Boyle is not Shanahan or Yzerman or Datsyuk or Crosby or Toews. But he can help. Yzerman acquired Ryan Callahan from the Rangers at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline, then signed two other Rangers -- Boyle and defenseman Anton Stralman -- as free agents July 1. At that point, the Lightning hadn't won a playoff round in three years. They had talent but lacked experience.

"We needed guys that had been there before, guys that had been through those wars, the Callahans, the Stralmans, the Boyles, the ones that had been to Stanley Cup Finals, who knew what it took to get there," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said in May. "I think we had such a young group coming up with kind of all those American League kids that came in. Who's going to lead them? Who's been there before? And that was what kind of changed I think the dynamic of our team."

The Lightning made the Final in 2015 and went back to the conference final last year.

"When things get tough in the playoffs, it's sticking together and fighting through some things, some uncomfortable times," Boyle said. "When I came down to Tampa, I was excited about the opportunity. It was a younger team, relatively untested, and we went to the Cup Final that year. So the potential and the opportunity is there [in Toronto], and I think the skill level is for sure there."

The next time Boyle wakes up from a pregame nap, he will know he will play for the Maple Leafs that night. That could be as early as Tuesday, when Toronto visits the San Jose Sharks (10:30 p.m. ET; CSN-CA, SNO, NHL.TV).

"From the moment you wake up, especially on a game day, you need to kind of look yourself in the mirror and get yourself ready to play," Boyle said. "It's obviously a team game. There's a lot that goes into this game. But I think for the most part, you have to make sure that you're ready, you're prepared, and you have to think about all those things as a player and without really having to say a whole lot.

"I think that's what I've learned from guys in the past, the older guys and successful guys that have led the way on teams that I've been on. They were always very disciplined in how they prepared for games. It's going to be no different for me. I'm going to take the same approach."

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