CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – When the Florida Panthers added NHL veteran Brian Boyle to the roster back in October, nobody really batted an eye.
It was one of those rare times where a general manager made a move that was universally agreed upon.
Brian Boyle, a two-time Stanley Cup finalist with 114 playoff games under his belt, was signed by a young, inexperienced Panthers franchise desperate to break through to the next level.
Yup. Made perfect sense.
Now, after the most bizarre and unparalleled season in NHL history, Boyle and the Panthers are back on the ice, in July, preparing for a five-game postseason series against the New York Islanders.
That…makes less sense. But after four months of quarantine life with no hockey to be found, nobody is complaining about the manner in which the NHL is bringing the game back, let alone providing some bonus playoff action.
"We're getting our feet under us a little bit," Boyle said after Friday's training camp practice. "I think the pace the first couple days was really good. It's really exciting to be a part of this and be back on the ice with everybody with so much on the line."
For Boyle, the NHL's Return to Play Plan offered something that he had just missed when the league paused the season.
Back on March 13th when the stoppage was announced, Boyle was on the cusp of getting back into the Panthers lineup after missing the previous six weeks with an upper-body injury.
He's now completely healthy and full of energy, ready to jump back onto Joel Quenneville's roster and fill whatever role he's asked to play.
"It's good to be back," Boyle said. "Mentally, it's exciting because I wasn't quite able to get back (in the lineup) before the pause."
Boyle's last game of the season came on Feb. 1 in Montreal, Florida's first game back after the All-Star break.
He didn't leave the ice early that night but thinks the possibility of lingering injuries mixed with the time off for All-Star Weekend combined to drag him onto the injured list for what ended up being the rest of the regular season.
"It wasn't really in the game (that the injury occurred)," Boyle said. "It just didn't get better and kind of went the other way for a little while. It was pretty close (to being healed) before the pause."
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
Boyle's wealth of playoff experience played a major role in why Florida was aggressively pursuing him last fall.
This will be the tenth season in a row that Boyle has skated in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, despite playing on a different team in each of the past five years.
"It's no secret I'm 35 and have bounced around a little bit," he said.
It's afforded him the opportunity to experience a plethora of postseason highs and lows while sharing stories and inspirational messages with some of the best players and coaches in the game.
"Every locker room I've been in on teams that have gone far in the playoffs, we started with the same conversation among the leadership," Boyle said. "I'll never forget, it was always, 'Hey, we don't know when we're going to get another chance to do this.' You could be in the league a long time or be a young player who thinks you're going to the playoffs every year. It doesn't necessarily happen that way.
"I think everybody, whether you're older, younger, experienced, new to the playoffs or new the league even, this is an opportunity that does not happen every year, and it's so hard just to get in that you have to make the most of it. You have to be really excited; you have to understand that you cannot take it for granted. That's what I've always been taught and told, and those habits develop throughout a season. I think when you have that opportunity, you try to run with it."
Panthers Head Coach Joel Quenneville knows as well as anyone what it takes to reach the pinnacle of professional hockey. Just ask his three Stanley Cup rings.
Q knows the value of having a player like Boyle, who can raise his game to the next level on the ice while guiding and encouraging the young Panthers off the ice.
"I think he adds a tremendous presence," Quenneville said of Boyle. "He's not only experienced but he carries himself the right way. He's a great competitor, he's a fun guy and I think the guys have a ton of respect for him.
"He recognizes the timing of what to say and when to say it, and he's not afraid to speak his mind. He plays hard, he works hard, he does everything he can for the team, and I think the intangibles and what he brings on the ice are high-end. He added a lot to our team."
While away from the rink during the summer of self-isolation, the Panthers stayed in touch with each other through a team group chat.
Boyle explained that there is strong belief among the players that all the pieces are in place for a deep playoff run, a positive energy in the dressing room that he called "really encouraging."
"The way this whole thing has gone down, we have an opportunity that we otherwise would've had to fight and claw to get," he said. "We all have confidence that we can get there."
SWISS ARMY LINE
When training camp began last week, Quenneville indicated that he was going to keep the forward lines together throughout, allowing time for chemistry and continuity to form ahead of their playoff series with the Islanders.
For the most part, the lines and pairings during training camp have mirrored how they were constructed in the final games before the pause, which were some of Florida's best of the season.
"Our goal here with lines is basically get some consistency, get some pace, get some predictability," said Quenneville.
Boyle, now healthy and in need of a slot to slide into, was penciled into the center spot on a new-look third line, with Lucas Wallmark moving to left wing, and sniper Brett Connolly on the right.
It's a unit that can provide a unique blend of grittiness, skill and scoring ability.
"We can do a number of different things," said Boyle. "We have to be responsible; we have to be able to check and be hard to play against."
One of the advantages to this trio is that it features two natural centermen in Boyle and Wallmark.
Despite skating at center for the majority of his career, Boyle has no predetermined notions about what particular position he's asked to play.
Odds are, he'd probably strap on some goalie pads if Quenneville asked him to.
At the end of the day, he's a hockey player.
"Whether I'm in the middle or I'm on the wing, wherever I'm at, as players, you have to (play to your strengths). What's your bread and butter, what can you bring, what's your element that you can bring to a line or a team?" Boyle explained.
"With Wally, he's been a center. He's really responsible, he can play the wing, he's got speed and he's good on draws. We can be interchangeable. With Brett, I played (on a line) with him in Tampa and I played with him this year a little bit. He brings that physicality, that size, he can skate, he can score from anywhere. We like to get him the puck as much as we can. I'll go to the net, and Wally's a gritty player, too. We all have to bring that hard-to-play-against element, especially this time of year."
The year Boyle and Connolly were teammates in Tampa Bay had a lasting impression on both, as a close friendship was forged between the unlikely pair.
Boyle took the then-22-year-old under his wing, but the promising year had a bittersweet ending for Connolly when Tampa shipped him up to Boston at the Trade Deadline.
The move cost Connolly the opportunity to skate with and learn from Boyle during the Bolts' impressive playoff run; the Lightning marched all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to Quenneville's Blackhawks in six games.
"I was young in Tampa when I was playing with him and he did a lot for me," Connolly said of Boyle. "We've been close friends since. He's been good to play with; he's been good to be around, and I think he's been good for our group.
"He's got a lot of experience in the playoffs, over 100 games, and he's been close a couple of times. He's hungry, you can tell. He's working hard out there. He really wants to be a difference maker and is putting himself in the best position to do that."
Ultimately, Boyle said the line needs to be "net positive" meaning they're on the ice for more goals scored for Florida than against.
It doesn't matter what situations they're put in or how Quenneville chooses to deploy them, the job stays the same.
"If we're thrown out there in the d-zone a lot, we have to embrace that role and take that responsibility, whatever the matchups are going to be."
When asked if he's bringing anything special into the NHL's quarantine bubble in Toronto, Boyle couldn't help but crack a joke.
"The biggest suitcase I've ever brought on a road trip is one thing I'll be bringing," he said through a laugh.
If all goes according to plan, Boyle, Connolly and the rest of the Panthers will be away from South Florida for two months.
For some guys, living in a hotel for multiple weeks and only leaving to play hockey won't be a problem. Others will need to find ways to pass the time.
"I'm bringing a putter and three golf balls just for the room," Boyle added. "There's going to be a lot of down time. I think for us, this is what we're born to do, this is what we want to the most."
Boyle doesn't foresee any problems with distractions while in Toronto.
When the Panthers aren't playing games or practicing, they'll likely just be hanging out at the hotel, resting, relaxing and, of course, watching hockey.
“We’re kids getting to play a game at that point,” Boyle said. “That’s all we’re doing, so it’s exciting.”