If all things were equal, you likely wouldn’t hear the name “Johnny Boychuk” floated as a trade possibility this summer. But it may just happen with the Bruins looking at a long offseason of reflection, self-examination and improvement after getting served in the second round by the Montreal Canadiens.
The top-four defenseman is the classic late-blooming NHL blueliner who didn’t completely establish himself with the Bruins until he was 26, but has steadily improved in all areas in five memorable seasons in Boston. Boychuk had his best statistical season for the Bruins in 2013-14 with a career-high five goals, 18 assists, 23 points and a plus-31 that tied him with San Jose defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic for ninth among all NHL players.
He also averaged a career-high 21:12 of ice time while acting as one of only two veteran defensemen anchoring the Boston defense, along with Zdeno Chara, once Dennis Seidenberg blew out his right knee in late December.
Boychuk, 30, has missed an average of five games a season the past three years while throwing big open ice hits, blocking shots with every part of his body and absorbing the typical physical punishment associated with being an NHL defenseman.
Boychuk managed only a couple of points in the 12 playoff games this spring after scoring six goals in 22 playoff games last year. But for what it’s worth, he did have the best goal celebration when he fired off the six shooters against the Canadiens in the third period of Game 1.
He also still ranks fourth in the postseason with 40 blocked shots despite not having played in the last week, and was one of the Bruins players willing to pay any physical price in the failed series vs. Montreal. Perhaps if there were more of those kinds of players the Bruins would be staring down the Rangers in the conference finals.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for No. 55, of course.
Boychuk was a minus player in three of the seven games against Montreal and was on the ice with Torey Krug for a pair of five-on-five goals against in a Game 1 loss that helped seal their fate. He struglled against Montreal as did everybody else, but was also Boston’s best defensemen as the series moved along.
So what does all of this mean?
The improving regular-season performances, the playoff track record, the durability and the fact he’s entering the final year of his contract all mean that the Bruins front office must make a decision on him. Boychuk is in line for a big raise from his current deal that pays him $3,366,667 per season and the market is shaping up favorably for him.
Andrew McDonald signed a six-year, $30 million deal with the Philadelphia Flyers at the end of the regular season, Justin Falk signed a six-year deal with the Carolina Hurricanes that will pay him $4.83 million per season and Dan Girardi signed a six-year, $33 million contract with the New York Rangers midway through last season.
One can make arguments with any of the three players as comparables (Boychuk is three years older than McDonald, plays about 3-5 minutes less per game than Girardi and is a full eight years older than Falk). Still, he’s in the same conversation with all three players as a heavy, sturdy defenseman capable of playing top four minutes with a big shot that plays offensively, and the market has been set for something in the range of $4.5-5 million for six years.
This is where the idea of trading Boychuk comes into play: he’s due for a big raise and his no-trade clause consists of 15 NHL teams that the defenseman can’t be traded to in this final season. The Bruins aren’t exactly swimming in cap space facing substantial raises for Reilly Smith and Torey Krug. Plus, they're looking at both Carl Soderberg and David Krejci with their contracts up at the same time as Boychuk.
Still, the Bruins should be cautious when names such as Alex Edler and Keith Yandle are being tossed around as possible players coming back to the Bruins. Boychuk is improving offensively every season and fits in well as a second-pairing defenseman, provided he’s playing with a D-partner that can hold up his end of the bargain on the other side.
Boychuk gives the Bruins much more bite than a player such as Edler and Yandle ever could and Boston’s young defensemen seem poised to be the next generation of Edler/ Yandle-type puck-moving defenders.
He’s a proven championship player that will persevere through pain that other players simply can’t or won’t and he’s the kind of player that cares about winning and losing in the Bruins dressing room. He’s been a good, developing leader of the young defenseman corps that played a significant role in the growing comfort level of a player such as Dougie Hamilton.
Those are the kinds of players you invest in on an elite team.
“When I first came in there were a few guys that took me in, talked to me and made me feel more comfortable about just playing my game,” said Boychuk. “When you talk to guys like Dougie, Torey [Krug] or Bart [Matt Bartkowski] and you make them feel welcomed, or comfortable...then they’re just going out and playing their game. It makes it easier for them to just go out and do their job. That’s the way it should be.
“When I first got here Derek Morris was a guy like that for me. He would always take me aside and teach me something. It was little things that made me more comfortable even though I didn’t play at all in the first 30-something games. I would just go back to the hotel, and those guys would invite me over for dinner. That kind of stuff makes a world of difference. Even if it’s just sitting next to [a young player] on the bus or asking them how their day is going.”
That is exactly the kind of unheralded thing players such as Boychuk and Shawn Thornton do to keep an entire dressing room full of players thriving as one unit. That can’t be easily measured or quantified in fancy stats.
The Bruins are clearly planning some level of turnover and perhaps even something of a personality nip and tuck within the Bruins dressing room going into this summer. Still, it would be a major mistake to cut out too much of the mindset, spirit and talent that have made Boston a Cup-caliber team in the first place. Boston’s best playoff moments have come with Boychuk as a major contributor to the proceedings, and that’s not a coincidence.
Those are the players that need to be retained even in the toughest of salary-cap times and Boychuk appears to just be finding his NHL level at a position where success can be maintained for players well into their 30's.
PLAYOFF REFS UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
It wasn’t the biggest reason the Bruins lost their playoff series, and it certainly became a non-factor when Boston looked like a fragile team in the first period of Game 7, but the refereeing in an elimination game left a lot to be desired.
It was a curious decision to start with assigning Dave Jackson and Dan O’Rourke to officiate Game 7 between the Bruins and Canadiens after they were the duo that slapped Claude Julien with the unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty in Game 2. The duo had done a good job in Game 2 despite the “crap” accusations from Julien, and the games officiated at the Bell Centre were as good as one could hope for given the normally intimidating playoff environment.
Still, it was clear Game 7 wasn’t going to be the typical “swallow their whistles” kind of affair.
Brad Marchand was the whipping boy for the Bruins as the first penalty of the game was a goalie-interference call where the play began with Andrei Markov cross-checking Marchand in the neck directly in front of the net.
Marchand was also whistled later for spraying the goalie in front of the net – a really inappropriate time to start calling that in Game 7 of a playoff series – and Johnny Boychuk was called for an interference penalty in the third period of a one-goal game that helped ice the contest for Montreal. Some of it was reputation calls on Marchand, and some it was a poorly managed game by the officials.
It was interesting to learn in this highly critical piece from former NHL ref Kerry Fraser that Jackson was held out of playoff assignments from 2010-2013 and his work wasn’t overly impressive in the Boston/Montreal series, either.
I don’t normally subscribe to conspiracy theories with referees and won’t in this particular case either, but it’s 100 percent always a shame when any part of the Game 7 discussion is about the officiating in anything less than glowing terms.
*Best of luck to Jim Benning taking control of a Canucks team in Vancouver, where he played as an NHL defenseman. Benning is a kind, affable gentleman that loves to talk hockey and has a keen eye for recognizing, drafting and developing young hockey talent. As Bruins assistant GM, he was also an executive that never needed to promote himself and seemed truly happy, whether he was in Boston as Peter Chiarelli’s right-hand man or running his own operation. I have no doubt he’s going to be a raging success for a Canucks franchise that could use a fresh mind to re-work their roster.
*It will be interesting to see who else Benning might attempt to bring to Vancouver with him. It wouldn’t shock anyone if longtime Bruins assistant coach Doug Houda is in the running for the head coaching gig with the Canucks after doing an excellent job with the B’s defenseman the past seven years.
*One big sign of optimism for the Bruins as they mull any potential forward turnover to their roster for next season: skilled forwards Ryan Spooner (6-9-15 in 12 games) and Alex Khokhlachev (9-5-14 in 12 games) tore it up in the two-round playoff run for the Providence Bruins. Khokhlachev, in particular, appears to have made a giant leap forward in his first full pro season in North America. Both are at the age where they should be knocking on the door for an NHL job, and could prompt the Bruins to open up roster spots for the young players. That’s simply the way of the world in the salary-cap era of the NHL.
Remember, keep shooting pucks at the net and good things are bound to happen.