When Dan Boyle joined the San Jose Sharks, we quickly saw that there hadn't been a player quite like him in team history. More defensively responsible than Brian Campbell, less WTF than Sandis Ozolinsh, and younger than Doug Wilson, Boyle became the best defenseman ever to skate in teal. Despite somewhat unbalanced minute allocation over this past season, he's still one of the most important players on the team, both functionally and emotionally.
However, we can't fight reality. Boyle is 36, and which means he's getting worse, not better. He's also got a cap hit of $6.67 million (with a no-movement clause, but we've seen that those can be worked around), which is a lot of cap space for someone that age. With one year left on his deal, it puts the Sharks in a bit of a unique situation because:
- The Sharks are trending downward: Despite the recent push, the simple truth is that the team's usual suspects of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Boyle are on the wrong side of 30. They're simply not the noted Stanley Cup contender that everyone saw a few years back.
- Puck-moving defensemen are at a premium: A top-flight two-way defenseman is pretty much the hardest position to fill. Every team is always looking for one, which means that they've got a high asking price.
- GMs are stupid at the trade deadline: We've seen GMs time and again pay way too much for a rent-a-player. Boyle's remaining year on his contract might make him more appetizing to a GM, especially if Doug Wilson is willing to absorb some of his contract per the terms of the new CBA.
From a practical perspective of pros and cons, it makes sense from a sell-high point of view. The Sharks have to inevitably pass the baton to the team's younger generation, and that means acquiring assets to expedite that rebuild. However, Boyle's additional year adds one twist to things. As things stand right now, the Sharks have their core group of forwards and defensemen together next season with about $10 million in cap space (seven forwards, five defensemen including Brent Burns, though who knows where he'll wind up). Most of the open forward slots are for bottom-six roles, and T.J. Galiardi, Jason Demers, and James Sheppard will be RFAs come June.
That leaves space to fill the roster and make one or two significant-but-not-huge signings in the off-season. The Sharks have options, as they still have their amnesty buyouts available from the new CBA. I'm guessing that means that Martin Havlat and his $5 millon cap hit, along with his good looks, won't be returning. Trading Boyle would greatly increase flexibility in a transitional phase. It should also get a number of assets in return -- if not roster players, then prospects or picks that could be parlayed into rebuilding the team's depth.
That being said, you can't get players like Boyle easily. While $6.67 million is probably a bit much for a soon-to-be-37-year-old player, he brings a lot to the table that can't easily be replaced. Strong skaters tend to age a little more gracefully than other players, and Boyle's skating ability has allowed him to remain highly competitive at his age.
All of this means that there aren't any simple answers. I don't think there are many people that consider the Sharks as Stanley Cup contenders, which means that it won't matter much whether they moved Boyle now or later. The biggest factor probably comes down to whether or not you believe the Sharks can utilize their cap space and assets to make a smooth transition into next season. This would require handling the current contract situations, making a moves like buying out Havlat, and using that flexibility wisely to add appropriate depth so the Sharks aren't so top-heavy. If that's the case, it makes sense to keep Boyle for his final year -- he's hard to replace and there's nothing stopping Doug Wilson from shopping him next season should things go south. However, if you believe that the core group is fundamentally flawed, particularly the core forward group, then Boyle is probably the most appealing trade asset on the roster.
There are sound arguments for both approaches, and we've seen the team give examples of both this season. For me, I think there's a strong enough mix of top-six forwards and defensemen that, with some appropriate moves, transitioning the team won't be too painful. I'd like to see Doug Wilson take this approach:
1) Keep Boyle this season unless a too-good-to-be-true offer comes up at the deadline or at the draft.
2) Buy out Havlat and get whatever you can for Clowe.
3) Use the cap space on 2nd/3rd line forward depth.
4) Trade Boyle at next year's deadline if the team is struggling for a playoff spot.
I think this acknowledges the reality of the situation without being knee-jerk about it. Since the team's not necessarily a Cup contender this season, this allows the Sharks to hold on to Boyle's on-ice value while evaluating things -- and ultimately moving him if they haven't successfully transitioned by February next year.
Random Boyle anecdote: I was a huge fan of his in Tampa Bay. His Sharks arrival was a bit of a fanboy's dream. At his first season ticket holder signing, I brought this Lightning bobblehead of him I had. It had a superhero theme, which meant that his bobblehead came complete with viking spikes, cape, and a hockey stick with a sword hilt. When I handed it to him for signing, the ever-honest Boyle looked at it and said, "Oh God, I hated these things."