When Bruins rookie defenseman Johnny Boychuk is on the ice, he just wants to go hit something.
It’s no wonder: When he was growing up in Edmonton as the youngest of three brothers, if he was the last to get home after school his siblings would lock him out of the house and force him to shoot 100 pucks before letting him in out of the cold.
“I was the youngest one, so I would get locked outside after school in negative-40 degree weather shooting pucks. Just a net and a piece of plywood,” Boychuk said. “I had to shoot a hundred pucks before I went inside and it’s minus-40.”
Fond memories? A rough-shod youth scrapping with his older brothers and playing hockey in the plains of Canada?
“I try to forget about it. Almost freezing my fingertips off,” Boychuk said.
Boychuk has acquitted himself well for the Bruins in the last half of this season. A healthy scratch on the NHL roster for the first half of the season, Boychuk has had the good fortune to step into the B's lineup on a regular basis because of a series of misfortunes on the Boston blue line. Both Andrew Ference and Mark Stuart have missed significant time in the early part of 2010 because of injuries, and Boychuk has stayed in the lineup because Stuart and trade-deadline acquisition Dennis Seidenberg both went out in the last week of the regular season with a finger infection and forearm laceration, respectively.
His play on the ice has been a pleasant surprise for coach Claude Julien. He took the opportunity that was presented to him and ran with it, breaking into a regular NHL rotation for the first time in his career.
“Well, I think he was a healthy scratch at the beginning of the year because he wasn’t as good as he is now,” Julien said. “He didn’t have didn’t have the experience, either. You know, we had some guys who were ahead of him and when injuries happened and he got in there, the more he played, the better he got, and it got to the point where we couldn’t pull him out of our lineup, he was that good.”
Boychuk has been paired with captain and reigning Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara down the stretch, which has helped his minutes skyrocket. As such, he has evolved into a distinct top-four NHL defenseman before the eyes of the Hub’s hockey fans.
“First half of the season [I was] sitting out,” Boychuk said. “And now, I am actually playing with [Chara], which helps a lot. Getting to play a lot helps tremendously.”
Yet, there were times in Boychuk’s career where it seemed like he would never be more of a bit player on an NHL roster.
After being the 61st overall selection in the 2002 draft, he logged 372 games in the American Hockey League, riding the bus from city to city with Colorado’s AHL affiliate. For the three years before Boychuk was traded to the Bruins organization, the Avalanche had him splitting time between forward and defense in the minors.
That did not make Boychuk happy. He also thinks it significantly hampered his ascent to the highest level of professional hockey.
“They wanted me to just be a fourth-line grinder, more or less,” Boychuk said. “I think I played half-and-half for almost three years. … The thing was, before I got traded to Boston last year, I was playing forward for half of the season. It is kind of tough being called up as a D-man when you are playing forward. It was a weird situation. And it helped a lot even though I did not get called up a lot, just playing a lot of minutes in every situation possible.”
Boychuk always thought of himself as a defenseman, so it was frustrating in his professional career to have to split time at a position where his mentality did not fit. The Avalanche could be excused for thinking the Edmonton native had some type of scoring streak in him. After all, he was born and raised during the heyday of the 1980s Oilers dynasty, and his favorite defenseman growing up was Paul Coffey.
“He was the one. I am a little bit more physical. I tried to play like him, but just don’t have the hands for it, to be honest,” Boychuk said.
Boychuk’s game plan has always been more of a hit-first philosophy, one that does not exactly fit with the Coffey mold nor is conducive to production on the wing.
“Just that ‘D’ mentality, just chip it in and try to hit people. I didn’t really know much else because I had never played forward before,” Boychuk said. “If you don’t know anything else you might as well try to hit people as a forward.”
The trade to Boston was a godsend in disguise. The B's front office liked him as a defenseman and he played exclusively for Providence last season, garnering AHL Defenseman of the Year honors in the process. His play gave him the opportunity to have an extended look from Boston’s coaching staff in training camp, and he made the Bruins roster, only to watch from the press box for most of the 2009 portion of the schedule.
Through it all, Boychuk said he never lost faith he could be an effective NHL defenseman, and his style of play — physical, blocking shots from the blue line — is that of a blue-collar player indicative of the son of a foreman for Shell in the Edmonton oil industry. Julien sees a player that has paid his dues and now is making the most of the journey.
“Well, that is what makes a player like that all that much better. He’s paid his dues,” Julien said. “You hear that often when we have guys who come up through the college or junior ranks and they get in the mix and they go straight up to the NHL and don’t realize what it is sometimes in the minors and the bus rides that go with it.
“But he has paid his dues. He’s been a good player for us in the minors. [The] best defenseman in the American Hockey League. And he has come up this year because he was a healthy scratch for the first part of the year. When he got the opportunity he came in and did a great job, and right now he is heavily relied on in our back end and he is logging a lot of minutes. He has earned them.”
Boychuk has the personality to survive in Boston. The years in the minors have given him a worker-bee mentality. He is sarcastic and smiling, at home in the dressing room and natural with the media. He is known as a good guy who laughs a lot and cracks jokes.
“You know how he is,” fellow rookie Tuukka Rask said. “He jokes around, he laughs a lot and he is fun to be around, for sure.”
Rask spent last year in Providence with Boychuk, and has gotten to know the defenseman. When asked about Boychuk’s current stretch of solid play, the netminder just shrugged (to be fair, Rask’s shrugs at just about everything).
“He doesn’t have to flip the switch. He is the same every night — he likes to play hard, [he’s] a funny guy and likes to joke around and gives his best every night,” Rask said.
Now, the career minor leaguer who spent so much time in positional purgatory is the primary villain in the Bruins' quarterfinal series against. Buffalo. The Sabres have lost two forwards to the hands of Boychuk. The most important in the series was Buffalo's top goal-scorer, Thomas Vanek, in Game 2 after Boychuk slashed his knee from behind on a partial break, which caused the forward to lose his edge and end up against the end wall, hurting his left leg. Then, Boychuk delivered the hit of the series when he clocked fourth-line forward Matt Ellis at the blue line heading into the neutral zone in the second period of Game 3.
“It was a pretty good jolt, it was a heck of a hit. I am sure that one is going to turn up on some Don Cherry’s tapes or something like that later on … It is playoff hockey,” Ellis said. “You know what, coming out of the D-zone and looking at [Patrick Kaleta] heading up the wall. Just trying to get him some time to get some speed and, you know, was under pressure and my head was down and didn’t see it coming from the left side. But I have seen it time and time again on the highlight. It was a good check.”
Ellis was non-committal when asked if Boychuk has definitely caught the attention of the Sabres, but the forward tipped his hat.
“He has played well, he has been big and strong and physical, he has done what he has needed to do and like I said it is playoff hockey and guys bring what they need to bring,” Ellis said.
Buffalo fans and media have been asking Boychuk if he feels like he is a dirty player and what he thinks about being persona non grata in western New York.
“I am not a villain, but if you want to make me out as one, if you want to point a finger at somebody, go right ahead. But it is not going to bother me,” Boychuk said with a hint of a smile, as if he likes the idea of being a villain but knows he is being completely miscast in terms of the way he normally plays.
Anybody who has watched Boychuk knows that he is not a hack artist, like a Kaleta, Sean Avery or Steve Ott. Nowhere near the type. Yet, after the bus rides and doldrums that come with a lengthy career in the minors, Boychuk does find it a little weird to be cast in such a spotlight in the midst of a tense and contentious NHL playoff series.
“I just want to keep it simple. If I get pucks to the net and if I get a chance to hit somebody, I am going to,” Boychuk said. “It is just like anybody else’s game, but I had the opportunity to make a hit like [Monday] and it was unfortunate that [Vanek] went down on that breakaway and fell right into the boards. It was one of those weird plays, I guess. They were all surrounding me, so they want to point fingers somewhere.”
However it shakes out, Boston perhaps has found a new top-four blue-liner heading into next season, one who can soften the impact of losing a guy such as Dennis Seidenberg (unrestricted free agent) or Mark Stuart (restricted free agent). There should be no reason to doubt Boychuk can maintain the level of play he has attained in the second half because he has the experience of knowledge after having paid his dues, as Julien said: Keep your head down when you’re working your rear end off, keep your head up when your coach is talking to you, and level forwards who have their heads down at the wrong time.
“I knew that I could, I just needed to keep my mind focused in practice and do whatever the coach tells me,” Boychuk said. “That is all I could do, because I wasn’t getting in the lineup. I wanted to stay in shape, I wanted to learn the system. I wanted to learn the defense system and know the guys and how they play and what their tendencies are and just be confident when I got the chance and took off when I got the opportunity.”