The Bruins gave Johnny Boychuk a contract that pays him like the Bruins' second-best defenseman. That makes the expectations on him over the course of this deal pretty clear.
Right now, of course, Boychuk is not the Bruins' second-best defenseman, nor is he their third-best defenseman. The deal, which commands a $3.36 million cap hit (second among B's blueliners only to Zdeno Chara) runs for three seasons beginning next season, and if his best is ahead of him, the B's may have made a smart move. If not, they may have made a bad one.
Claude Julien handles his defensemen differently in the regular season and the postseason. In the regular season, he plays his three best defensemen -- Chara, Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference -- on different pairings to create more balance on the blue line. He is fortunate to have a capable blueliner in Boychuk who can handle the minutes of playing with Chara, and as such, Boychuk, who is by no means your prototypical "top-pairing defenseman," plays on the top pairing with the best defenseman in the NHL. It works for the Bruins in the regular season. When they get to the postseason, the Bruins play their best defensemen together. That means a shutdown pairing of Chara and Seidenberg and less balance with the rest of the pairings.
That makes Boychuk the Bruins' fourth-best defenseman right now, behind the likes of Chara, Seidenberg and Ference. In reality, Chara and Seidenberg are on their own level, and then there's everybody else, meaning Boychuk is the second best in the "everybody else" group. The question is whether he will still be that during his contract. If he is, that's a bad deal by Chiarelli.
Where there's hope for this deal is the fact that Chiarelli has been excellent at projecting when it comes to signing these defensemen. Both Ference (three years at $2.25 million a year) and Seidenberg (four years at $3.25 million a year) have been steals for the Bruins, and Chiarelli was criticized for the Ference deal, just the way he's probably being criticized for this Boychuk deal.
Yet Ference stayed healthy and put up good regular-season numbers last season (three goals, 12 assists, plus-22) before adding four goals and six assists in the postseason. He was one of the Bruins' best players in their Stanley Cup run, and he did it for a $2.25 million cap hit.
The question is whether Boychuk will ever appear to be the type of bargain Ference or Seidenberg have been. (Imagine what Seidenberg, who signed his new deal before last season, would have gotten on the open market if he was a free agent a year later?) If that's the case, the Bruins clearly must expect better things to be in Boychuk's future. As he is right now, he probably isn't worth the deal he just signed.
"Certainly for a defenseman, they mature at a later pace, a later time than forwards," Chiarelli said of Boychuk. "I think it’s a harder position to learn, it’s a harder position to improve at, and [Ference and Seidenberg] have benefitted under our coaches and our system. Johnny’s 28, so that’s young. It used to be that you’d have the rights to the player until he was 31, and then you’d think about signing 31-, 32-year-olds in the free market. He’s still young and still learning, and he’s an enthusiastic player."
Given all their cap space, the Bruins had money to play with, and Chiarelli clearly wanted Boychuk back. With no disrespect to Boychuk intended, he isn't exactly the guy who should have been the priority. Chris Kelly is unrestricted at season's end and Tuukka Rask will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. The three members of the fourth line also will see their contracts expire at the end of the season. Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton are up next year. Yes, they have money (somewhere in or around the $13 million range in cap space at the end of the season if they put Marc Savard on LTIR, according to numbers found on Capgeek.com), but with so many key players to be signed, it would be more reassuring if the B's locked up the big guns first and figured out the rest after.
"It takes up some tag room," Chiarelli said of the Boychuk deal, "but we’ve got a lot of cap space and LTI space, so that doesn’t worry me."
If the Bruins end up losing Kelly over $500,000 per year or have trouble keeping Seguin, Marchand and Lucic next season, you can bet which deal angry fans will point to: Boychuk's.
BETTER PLAY, SIMILAR RESULTS
Are the Bruins still struggling or can they just not catch a break?
To be cliche, it's a little bit of both. And while Claude Julien rightfully was frustrated with the loss Tuesday, his team certainly didn't put up a stinker against the Rangers. In fact, from the second period on, the Bruins controlled the play. They outshot the Rangers 14-5 in the second period and limited New York to just three shots in the third period while getting 18 pucks through to Henrik Lundqvist. No, the B's did not get quality chances (they were playing the stingy, shot-blocking, tremendously goaltended Rangers, after all), but the Rangers barely got anything.
The Bruins controlled the game but left it with no points. Sound familiar? That's what they came 67 seconds away from doing Saturday against Nashville before Milan Lucic tied the game and the team won in a shootout. For two straight games, the B's have limited their opponents tremendously, and they have just one shootout win to show for it.
"I thought in the second and third we put a lot of pressure on them," Chara said after the game. "We had a really good forecheck, we closed them in the zone for a number of times, but if you don't score a goal, you don't get the results, and you need to get some results, too. That's what we were missing. We were missing that one goal that would put us into that better jump and better feeling. I don't want to say frustrating, but it's tough when you're controlling the game, you're creating a lot of chances, and you don't get that goal."
The Bruins also caught an unlucky bounce in the first period, when Ryan McDonagh threw a puck toward the front of the net from the half wall. The puck bounced off Chara and into the net, increasing the Rangers' lead to 2-0. There game still had 40:12 left to go, but against a team as difficult to score against as the Rangers, that second goal, a fluke, made a Bruins' win look unlikely despite the game still being the first period.
"That’s going to happen," Tim Thomas said of the goal. "It is frustrating, there’s no doubt about it, right when it happens. But you have to put it behind you right away and just respond to the best of your ability. We’re due for some of those, too, and we’ve had times we’ve gotten the flukey ones like that."
If the Bruins can go on this road trip and control the play the way they have over the last two games, it's hard to imagine them not being successful. The B's are looking for answers, sure, but at this point they should also be looking for wins, period. They're 8-8-1 over their last 17 games and have not won back-to-back games since Jan. 10 and 12.