UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Midway through Monday's practice, Islanders coach Jack Capuano summoned his players to diagram a play on the dry erase board. As his team took a collective knee, one of New York's defensemen went front and center in the group, cutting directly in front of Cal Clutterbuck and slowly pushing his rear end into the veteran right winger as he took his knee.
Meet the Islanders' new elder statesman and voice of veteran leadership, 30-year-old Johnny Boychuk. With Lubomir Visnovsky out, the former Bruin is the oldest player in his new team's lineup.
“Think about that,” Boychuk said in a conversation with WEEI.com this week. “Like, what the hell is going on?”
Getting traded from the Bruins days before the season began -- a move he saw coming, to an extent -- was an extremely tough pill for Boychuk to swallow, but it hasn't taken him or the Islanders long to realize that he is a great fit with his new team.
Being used as a No. 1 defenseman and a power-play cog, Boychuk is off to a very impressive start to the season. His six points in his first six games are as many as he had in the lockout-shortened season, while his increased minutes and status as his team’s top blueliner only will help his price tag as he nears unrestricted free agency at season’s end.
Best of all for Boychuk, this isn’t close to a gold-among-garbage scenario. The Islanders, who strengthened their offense and goaltending in the offseason and also traded for Boychuk’s defensive partner in Nick Leddy the same day they swung their deal with Boston, sit atop the Metropolitan Division despite dropping their last two games (4-2-0) and are expected to be a contender in the Eastern Conference.
“We’re a good team,” Boychuk said. “People might underestimate us.”
While trading Boychuk for draft picks has worsened the Bruins for this season and left what was once a very deep group of defensemen relatively thin beyond its top pair, the Islanders couldn’t be happier with the deal.
Prior to the Saturday that Islanders general manager Garth Snow swung trades for both Boychuk and Leddy, defense appeared to be the hole on the team’s roster. Capuano, formerly the head coach of AHL Bridgeport and an admirer of Boychuk’s game at both levels, was thrilled that they were able to get their hands on him and Leddy to give the team what it feels is a legitimate top pairing.
“I know that Garth was looking,” Capuano said. “To pull off those two guys was a big plus for us. Those guys bring some good experience to our hockey club.”
Publicly, Boychuk shrugged off trade rumors that filled the offseason, but he knew they made sense.
“Everybody knew somebody was going to get traded,” Boychuk said. “Everybody. Everybody on the team.”
Given the Bruins’ cap crunch and the fact that he was due for a big raise after this season from his current $3.36 million average annual value, Boychuk appeared a candidate to be traded out of Boston’s deep stable of defensemen. When negotiations for a contract extension never took place this offseason (Peter Chiarelli generally signs his guys before they enter their contract’s last season), it became easier for Boychuk to put two and two together.
“We didn’t talk, so I just figured something’s probably going to happen,” he said matter-of-factly.
One thing that kept Boychuk’s hope of remaining a Bruin alive was that Chiarelli, who has a very positive reputation of being considerate of his players and notifying them when he might trade them, didn’t give Boychuk the type of heads up he’d given to Rich Peverley the previous offseason. This was likely because Boychuk wasn’t necessarily the guy that would be moved. The Bruins had other defensemen they could have traded.
As Boychuk saw it, there was a group of eight defensemen on the NHL roster and one would go. The process of elimination was easy to determine which ones might be on the block. The list of safe players started with Zdeno Chara and Dougie Hamilton, two of Boston’s truly untouchable players.
“Obviously Torey [Krug]’s not going to go since he just re-signed, so you’ve got three,” Boychuk added. “Then I think Seids has a no-[trade], so that leaves…”
Adam McQuaid, Kevan Miller, Matt Bartkowski and Boychuk. Miller, Boychuk noted, could easily be slid into the safe group because he had signed a two-year, team-friendly extension in the same season that he had proven himself deserving of a spot on Boston’s blue line.
The team’s lack of cap space prior to Krug’s signing made Boychuk the favorite in the group to get dealt. The team had only $3.218 million in cap room, and they needed to sign both Krug and Reilly Smith, both of whom figured to get $2 million or more apiece easily.
So when the B’s played hardball and got Smith and Krug to each take just $1.4 million for the season, it appeared that Boychuk was safe. Yet while many (yours truly among them) thought that Boychuk was sure to stay, Boychuk didn’t feel any safer than he did before.
“It didn’t really solve the [expletive] eight D men problem, did it?” Boychuk said, almost surprised that more people didn't realize it. “It’s the way it is, though. They had to get rid of somebody.”
Five days later, Boychuk was waking up from a pregame nap when his phone rang. Hours before he was scheduled to play in the Bruins’ last game of the preseason, he answered his phone. It was Chiarelli.
“As soon as I said ‘hello’ and he said, ‘Hi Johnny, this is Peter,’ I was like ‘ugh,’” Boychuk recalled. “You know that you’re getting traded when Peter calls you.”
It wasn’t an easy conversation on either side. Chiarelli didn’t want to trade Boychuk, but felt it was the move the cap-space-strapped Bruins had to make. Boychuk, who had been with the B’s since they got him from Colorado in 2008, didn’t want to leave.
“He praised me, and obviously I was upset,” Boychuk said. “It was the fact that I was leaving Boston and there’s a lot of things going through your mind when it happened. He said all positive things. It’s not like I [got myself traded]. You try to make things as hard as possible. It is what it is.”
Chiarelli gets the benefit of the doubt in Boston because he’s one of the top general managers in the league, but the Boychuk trade was widely panned. It left the Bruins with cap space to sign Simon Gagne and presumably make a trade for a forward down the road, but it’s left the Bruins with questions on defense that, when healthy, they haven’t had in years past.
With all due respect to those the B’s kept, losing McQuaid or Bartkowski wouldn’t have hurt their roster the way moving Boychuk did. The biggest argument that followed the trade was that it didn’t have to be Boychuk. The last person to harbor any ill feelings towards anyone, Boychuk has nothing bad to say about how things went down.
“They didn’t have to [trade me], but they needed to move somebody,” he said. “[If they didn’t], somebody would have got sent down to the minors who didn’t deserve it, when you’ve been playing in the NHL for a couple years and you’re getting sent down because we have too many guys. You don’t do that, because we had good defensemen.”
A KEEPER FOR THE ISLANDERS?
If there’s one positive for Boychuk being traded from a perennial contender to an up-and-coming team, it’s the opportunity that he’s been given. Boychuk, who served as Zdeno Chara’s partner in Boston and was tasked with anchoring the Bruins’ second pairing each postseason, is the Islanders’ No. 1 defenseman. In Boston, he was their third, and maybe their fourth D.
Boston’s depth also kept Boychuk off the power play. In New York, he leads all defensemen in power place ice time, playing on the team’s top power play unit with captain John Tavares.
So far, Boychuk and his slap shot have been a big success on the power play. He’s scored twice on the man advantage and added three assists.
“These guys are obviously a very skilled team, and they’re good passers,” Boychuk said. “All I have to do is close my eyes and shoot.”
The added responsibilities are a welcome addition for Boychuk, who relished his role in Boston but understood that only one player can be “the guy” in Boston (“Zee will always be No. 1 — let’s call a spade a spade — and he deserves it,” Boychuk noted). His 22:50 of ice time per night is far and away tops on the team (over than two full minutes more than Tavares, who is second on the team at 20:49 a night); his highest average ice time with the Bruins was 21:11, which came last year in a season that saw the B's lose Seidenberg.
Boychuk doesn’t have the supporting cast on the blue line that he did in Boston, but the Islanders are using him as the defenseman around whom they can build their back end.
“They’re a great hockey club and they’ve got a lot of depth on the Bruins, but he came here and he’s getting an opportunity,” Capuano said, “but it’s one thing for a player to get that opportunity. It’s another thing for a player to take advantage of that opportunity, and I think he’s done that.”
Though he hasn’t been there a month, the happy-go-lucky Boychuk has also made a positive impression on his new teammates. Leddy, a 23-year-old former first-round pick of the Wild who had played his entire NHL career with the Blackhawks before being traded minutes after Boychuk, is already looking up to his new defensive partner. The two both live in the same building (Boychuk’s South End home sold three days after he was traded) and are fitting together nicely.
“He’s a heck of a player on the ice; obviously everybody knows about his shot, which is unbelievable, and just his smarts around the game have definitely helped me as a player already,” Leddy said of Boychuk. “I think we have some pretty good chemistry right off the bat.”
The question is how long it will last. As long as he stays healthy, Boychuk will presumably get something around $6 million annually (perhaps more) on his next deal.
That deal could very well end up being with the Islanders. Boychuk is intrigued by the team’s upcoming move to Brooklyn next season. He's also a strong believer in New York’s roster, which is built around Tavares, the first overall pick in the 2009 draft.
Factor in the team’s ample cap space to add other players (even if the cap didn’t go up, they’d have $24.5 million in cap space this offseason with most of their key players but Boychuk and Leddy signed) and Boychuk says he would be on board with re-upping with the Islanders. He added that he would even forgo free agency and sign in-season if the Islanders make what his camp deems to be a suitable offer.
“Definitely,” he said. “Our team is going to be unbelievable for quite some time — probably the next five years is going to be an awesome time for this team. It’s not out of the question.”
Boychuk has the rest of his career ahead of him. As hard as it was to close the Boston chapter, he seems genuinely happy with where he is and where he’s headed.
That doesn’t mean coming back to Boston Thursday as a visitor, where he’ll undoubtedly be greeted with fans who never wanted to see him go and some sort of video tribute, will be easy.
“[Expletive],” he said, staring into space for a moment before continuing.
“That’s going to be… different. It’s going to be hard. It will definitely be hard. Like…”
Boychuk couldn’t finish the thought. His Bruins career is over, but his pride in what he was able to accomplish in Boston doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.