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Boyle defends scoring ability

Lightning defenseman knows his offensive capabilities, not his defensive skills, have helped him keep his job.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002


BRANDON -- Sweet words to Dan Boyle's ears came from Craig Ramsay Saturday, as the Lightning associate coach discussed how he wants his defensemen to play.

"Don't be safe," Ramsay said, "and don't be careful."

To a defenseman like Boyle, whose offensive capabilities are unquestioned but whose defensive efforts he admits have been a bit nerve-racking, it was like getting a "get out of jail free" card.

"I'm pretty sure I'm going to hear it my whole career, I didn't get here because of my defensive play," Boyle said after practice at the Ice Sports Forum. "It's just a matter of not hurting the team. The way an offensive defenseman plays, there are going to be mistakes."

The Lightning thinks it can minimize those mistakes, and thwart an opponent's offense, by allowing defensemen to join the rush and pinch from the point.

Ramsay said that brings more offensive pressure (key for a team that scored just 178 goals last season) and creates a traffic jam that makes clean breakouts for the opposition more difficult.

Think of it this way, Ramsay said. If the defense hangs back, a gap is created between the forwards in the offensive zone and the defensemen behind the play. That is where an opponent's offense gets revved up.

"You create five-man units, and we're solidly of the opinion that five guys are hard to beat," Ramsay said. "We put our defense up and that creates solid fronts."

The plan also frees Boyle to do what he does best, create plays with his speed and passing ability.

The first test was a success as Boyle had four assists Friday against the Thrashers. He also tied for the team high at plus-5 and played under control on defense.

Not once did Boyle need to slide to try to break up a play on which he was caught out of position, something that happened too much last season.

Boyle, 26, hit some tremendous highs after being acquired from the Panthers in January for a fifth-round draft pick. He had five goals and 15 assists in 41 games and cruised through a seven-game streak in which he had four goals and five assists and was plus-6.

But the lows were just as notable. Boyle was minus-15 and followed his hot streak with an 11-game chill in which he was minus-13.

"It's a gamble," Boyle said of his style. "But I look at it this way: If eight of 10 times it works for you, that's pretty good odds."

Tampa Bay's system, which was first installed after last season's Olympic break and resulted in 2.8 goals per game, is supposed to create those kinds of odds.

"The key is not to be in the defensive zone, and the first pass (out of the zone) is huge," Boyle said. "In the neutral zone, it's the same thing, make good passes. And don't look to stay on the point, mix it up a little bit."

"We think our defense can be an offensive force," Ramsay said. "We need to get our goals up and Danny has that ability. He's going to make some mistakes and get caught, but then it's up to the other people to back him up."

And not just Boyle's fellow defensemen. Forwards must read a defenseman's forays and make sure they have his back.

If things still go wrong, well, "We've got a solid goalie," Boyle said of Nikolai Khabibulin. "He'll bail me out."

What the Lightning wants to look at is an attacking offense that starts quickly in games and cuts last season's 19 one-goal losses.

"For me, the system is going to benefit the way I play," Boyle said. "I play an aggressive game, an in-your-face kind of game."

One he hopes results in more pluses than minuses.


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