NEW YORK -- A broken hand opening night, multiple illnesses that he never before had to deal with, inconsistent play that hadn't existed previously, and a reduced role that hurt his confidence. Dan Boyle didn't expect his first season with the New York Rangers to be as frustrating on a personal level as it has been.
At 38 years old, Boyle knew his days as a No. 1 defenseman were done, particularly because he signed with a team that already featured Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. But Boyle didn't think he'd have to deal with as much change and adversity as he's had to this season.
"That's been the most frustrating thing about this year for me, just trying to stay steady with that confidence level," Boyle said. "It's hard when you're not used to this."
It looks like it's finally getting easier for Boyle; he at least feels it is. So does McDonagh. So does Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, who said Boyle had one of his best games of the season Thursday in a 4-3 win against the Arizona Coyotes.
Though it might have taken until late February, it appears the Rangers finally are seeing the skilled, slick-skating, puck-rushing defenseman they thought they were getting when they signed Boyle to a two-year, $9 million contract July 1.
New York carries a 10-game point streak (8-0-2) into its game Saturday at the Philadelphia Flyers (8 p.m. ET; NBC, City). Boyle has been in the lineup and contributing in various ways every game.
"I'm just kind of figuring out my role, and that's been a tough adjustment on me mentally, just playing less than I've been accustomed to in the past," Boyle said. "It's definitely been an adjustment and mentally it's been tough, but if I look at the last 10 games or so I think I've done a better job than in the past. I don't know if niche is the word, but I'm finding ways to get involved offensively a little bit more."
Boyle's role is different with the Rangers, so those end-to-end rushes he became famous for with the Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks, when he'd weave through the middle of the ice, are few and far between. The Rangers' defensemen rarely skate the puck through the neutral zone.
Boyle's ice time also is different because of the presence of McDonagh, Girardi and Staal, and the improvement of Kevin Klein. Though Boyle led his team in average ice time per game for the past 11 seasons, with a low mark of 21:16 last season, this season he is fourth on the Rangers at 20:05; that is elevated by his Rangers-leading 2:58 per game on the power play. He has played fewer than 20 minutes in 10 of the past 14 games.
Of late Boyle has been taking more risks with his pinches in the offensive zone and he's generating more scoring chances at even-strength and on the power play. He has played almost 22 minutes in two of the past three games.
"You can tell he's still got good jump," McDonagh said. "The best thing is he makes a little pass behind the net, then he's making three or four hard strides to beat his guy up the ice, takes a chance on a pinch, continues low, sniffing. Those are the examples that create opportunities for us offensively."
Boyle has 15 points in 43 games, so though his numbers might not reflect his improved play, he didn't come to the Rangers to put up numbers.
"I came here to win the Stanley Cup," Boyle said.
The Rangers signed him because they thought he could help them do that. New York is 30-9-4 with Boyle in the lineup this season; it is 8-7-2 without him.
Boyle's enhanced stats tell a bigger story of his value. He leads the Rangers in shot-attempts differential (SAT) at plus-125 and in SAT relative at plus-233, though it should be noted he's been playing on the third defense pair, so he's not facing the same level of competition as McDonagh, Girardi, Staal and Klein are.
"I see a lot of positives there and a lot of upside," Vigneault said. "Obviously his minutes here are different than what he's used to, but when he's been in our lineup our win record is excellent. He helps us to move the puck. He's just being used a little bit differently. I feel come the end of the season he'll be fresh and ready to help us with that final push."
Defense - NYR
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 15
SOG: 87 | +/-: 15
That's what Boyle is hoping for. That's what has kept him going through what easily has been his most trying season since 2001-02, before he became a No. 1 defenseman for the Lightning and the Sharks.
Boyle averaged at least 24 minutes per game in seven of his previous 11 seasons. He averaged more than 25 minutes five times, 26 minutes four times, and 27 minutes twice.
Now that his minutes are less, Boyle said it's harder to regain confidence after making a mistake because he has more time to think about what went wrong. And with the way he plays, having the puck as often as he does in precarious positions near the blue line, mistakes are going to happen.
"When you're playing 27 or 28 minutes a night like I have been for the last 12 years, you don't have time to think about mistakes and you get a really good feel for the game," Boyle said. "That's been the tough adjustment, sitting there and not feeling the puck as much and having to go out there and do what I'm used to doing."
Boyle's game also has changed with the score. The Rangers have been playing with the lead a lot (they've scored first in 37 of 60 games), so they haven't needed Boyle to try as many end-to-end rushes or pinch as deep into the offensive zone to chase a goal.
"He's trying to play within the team concept, the team boundaries, so he's playing the game that is in front of him and we've been ahead a lot," said forward Martin St. Louis, who won the Stanley Cup with Boyle in Tampa Bay in 2004. "We tend to play safer when we're ahead and our [defensemen] are not really leading the rush. We've been ahead in a lot of the games and you play sometimes to protect the lead. But if we need a goal you know [Boyle] is going to hold on to it a little more and he's going to sniff. The reality is we haven't trailed much."
Boyle's enhanced statistics prove St. Louis' point. He leads the Rangers with a plus-58 SAT behind and plus-55 SAT close, so when they are trailing or the score is close he is pushing the offense to generate shots and scoring chances.
"The score will dictate a little bit more about how I play, but I'm not going to complain," Boyle said. "This team has been winning, has been ahead. At the end of the day that eases the frustration."