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Travis Boyd never stopped believing that he was more than the prevailing scouting reports suggested he was. As countless players will tell you, a key ingredient in the NHL success recipe is simply getting the opportunity to succeed.
Lawson Crouse got that opportunity and seized it last season. Scott Wedgewood got it and seized it last season. JJ Moser got it and seized it last season.
Boyd was at a crossroads in his career last summer. At age 28, he had played six seasons of pro hockey, but just 124 of his 345 games came in the NHL, while 221 of them were spent with the Hershey Bears’, the Washington Capitals’ AHL affiliate.
“If you look at my career, I kind of started off in some organizations that were in Stanley Cup mode; organizations that had their guys in there, and maybe there wasn’t that opportunity to be something more than a fourth-line player or maybe get a crack at being a third-line type of player,” said Boyd, who also spent 20 games with Toronto and 19 in Vancouver.
“I’ve always viewed myself as something more than a fourth-line player in this league, but coming into this summer, I realized that time was running out; I wasn’t 23 years old anymore. It was one of those years where you either get an opportunity to show that you can be more than a bottom-six guy, or you kind of get labeled that for the rest of your career.”
Boyd had a lot of conversations with his agents, Ben Hankinson and Chris McAlpine. They were frank conversations, and many of them were tough to hear.
“It’s hard because we have to be that voice of reason; it’s kind of like parenting,” Hankinson said. “They need to know we believe in them, but we’ve got to kick them in the butt sometimes and there was a lot of that back and forth with Travis.
“He’d always come back to us and say, ‘I’m good enough, but I am getting sent to the minors again’ and we were like, ‘Yeah it doesn’t feel fair, Travis, but at the end of the day, it will be, so go down there and prove it’ and every time he did go down to the minors, he put up points and played his way back up.’”
When Boyd became an unrestricted free agent last summer, however, getting called up wasn’t enough.
“I started talking with my agents about trying to find a team or a place where I could get an opportunity to be something more than that,” he said. “If I’m being honest, it wasn’t like I had 20 teams calling and offering me deals either. There were some teams that I guess you could say were more salary-cap teams that were looking for you to be a fourth- or third-line player, but I just remember telling Ben and even Chris McAlpine that I wanted an opportunity to be something more than that.”
Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong had some interest. The Coyotes weren’t exactly flush with center depth after tearing down the roster to commence Year 1 of the rebuild, but Armstrong had different thoughts about Boyd than Hankinson.
“I was basically begging Army,” Hankinson said, laughing. “Bill really liked him. He just wanted to give him a two-way contract. I was begging him because I felt it was really important to get him a one-way contract. I told Bill, ‘He’s going to be a perfect fit in a top-six role, but you don’t have to pay him like one. He’ll take part of the risk. Just give him a chance.”
Boyd didn’t get that chance initially. For the first eight games, he was playing fourth- and third-line minutes, but he was also playing with the mentality of a fourth-line player.
“If you watched my first 10 or so games I wouldn’t maybe try and make that pass through the seam or try and hold on to it for that extra half a second to see if something else opened up,” he said. “It was a new environment, but at the same time, I didn’t really feel like I was somebody who could turn the puck over a few times a night and it was gonna be alright. You get used to playing on a fourth line and your job is just don’t turn it over. If you do, you probably won’t play.”
As the Coyotes lost their first 11 games (0-10-1), and 14 of their first 15, however, first-year coach André Tourigny kept tinkering with the lineup. Boyd played in more situations, he got the chance to play more minutes, and he got the chance to play with the team’s most skilled players.
The result was a career-best 17 goals, a career-best 35 points and a career-high 16:31 average ice time per game.
“He’s a versatile guy; he’s a flexible guy,” Tourigny said. “He can play on the wing and play center on every line. Whatever the identity of that line, he can fit right in. I could put him on a line with (Lawson) Crouser and Obi (Liam O’Brien) and it will be a good line. He’s not a player who has one role on the team. He can fill a lot of roles.”
Boyd’s greatest success came between Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz, who also turned in career years, based on their points per game and their roles.
“Those two are obviously super skilled, but they also think the game in a similar way,” Boyd said. “They want to possess the puck. They want to hold on to it. It’s a lot of moving it quickly, getting to an open spot, getting it back, holding on to it, finding the ice. They’re not a twosome who’s gonna get over the red line and go with a soft chip in the corner and try and forecheck it back. I would prefer not to have to do that either. How they play is how I want to play, too, and I think that was probably the thing that allowed all three of us to really have good chemistry and to work out well together.”
That success also led Armstrong to choose the latter of the two options that he could have chosen with Boyd. Two weeks before the March 21 trade deadline, Armstrong signed Boyd to a two-year extension with an average annual value of $1.75 million. Armstrong knew that he needed some players under longer-term contracts the following season, but Boyd had earned his spot.
“Bill kind of hit me over the head with, ‘This is what we can do on a two-year deal and I can’t do a penny more,’” Hankinson said. “Of course, I tried to get more than a penny more but that’s all he would do. To be honest, we were both happy with the deal and Travis was ecstatic.”
Boyd called the contract validation.
“I think the most important thing, and the thing I’m most proud of is that it’s one thing to sit here and say, ‘I want an opportunity,’” Boyd said. “When you get that opportunity, you have to take advantage of it and I feel like I did a really good job of taking advantage of my opportunity.
“That was a huge moment for me, especially for a guy who’s never been in that situation before. That was one of the biggest moments in my career so far, just because the goal coming into the year was to do what I did last year. It was obviously the biggest season of my career and it definitely helped me take a step.”
Boyd wants to take another step.
“Taking the next step is about trying to take the confidence that I finished the year with and trying to start there and hopefully build on that confidence this season,” he said. “Coming into last year, I was accustomed to playing maybe 10 to 12 minutes a night and all of a sudden, I started playing 18 to 20 minutes a night. So a big focus for me was my conditioning level and my body composition, taking care of my body and body fat, things like that.
“If you look at guys who play 20 minutes a night in this league, they can play 20 minutes, but even late in the third period, they still have that jump, they still have that energy level, they have the motor to keep going. I think there were stretches of last year, as the season wore on, that playing that amount of minutes started to wear on me. My big focus this summer was being ready to play that much and really trying to improve my conditioning level, trying to lean out a little bit more than I was last year so I can go out there and play 20 minutes and even late in the third period still feel like I can go out there and give it 110 percent.”
Opportunities will abound once again for Boyd on a team and roster that is still focused on the future. Given their success together, it’s fair to guess that Boyd, Keller and Schmaltz will be reunited at some point, but Boyd isn’t assuming anything. Tourigny said that is the right approach to take.
“There’s so many guys who want to steal your job and the coach and the GM are looking for who can take your job so you have no security, you have to fight for it every day,” Tourigny said. “Boydy grinded it out for years to try to have some security and he finally, probably for the first time, got that kind of a contract with a two-year deal. Good for him. He earned it, but it’s not an easy league so if he wants to sign another one, the grind starts right now and he needs to keep going and earning it.”
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