By Steve Silverman
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The last season on Long Island will be a memorable one for the Islanders.
General manager Garth Snow has not exactly wowed the paying customers with his moves at the helm of the franchise since 2006, but his startling and bold trades over the weekend that brought the team defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy are going to pay off in a huge way during the 2014-15 season.
The Islanders made the playoffs two years ago, and nearly upset Pittsburgh before they went down to defeat. The talent of John Tavares and Kyle Okposo was fully on display, and that shook the Penguins down to their core.
Last year should have been another playoff season, but weaknesses on the defensive end and the knee injury suffered by Tavares in the Olympics derailed their hopes.
Now, the Islanders have a chance to become a big-time player in the Eastern Conference. It’s far too early to say that they are going to be as strong as the Boston Bruins or Penguins right from the start, but this will not be the same Islanders team that the fans have gotten used to seeing in recent years.
Instead, this team will have offensive talent and a defensive fabric that has been missing.
The two newcomers both have the qualities and characteristics of champions, and that is going to rub off on the rest of the team.
Boychuk and Leddy have each won the Stanley Cup. Boychuk won his as a member of the Bruins in 2011 and Leddy was a part of the Chicago Blackhawks team that won the title in 2013.
Boychuk is a player who will give the fans their money’s worth on an every-night basis. He is a hard-nosed, tough and physical defenseman who is going to bring a hitting game to the Islanders. He is not reckless in his approach, but if Boychuk can deliver a shoulder to his opponent’s chest or midsection without losing his position, he is going to do so.
He is responsible on the defensive end. He does not give up open ice and he will block shots with a kind of fearlessness that makes you shake your head in wonder.
He can also carry the puck, but that is not his best asset. What he can do is rifle the puck from the point like few others.
During his years with the Bruins, “Johnny Rocket” scored a number of huge goals, particularly in the playoffs. Former teammate Zdeno Chara may have won all the shooting contests at the All-Star games and top 100 mph when he blasts away, but there is often a hesitancy when he shoots the puck. Chara knows that if he connects at full force and his shot happens to hit an opponent or a teammate in the wrong spot, it could be disastrous.
Boychuk has no such fear. He may be a couple of mph behind Chara, but he gets rid of the puck quickly and with serious intentions. He is going to make an Islanders’ power play unit that finished 17th in the NHL last season far more dangerous.
He is a very productive defenseman on the ice, and his infectious and enthusiastic personality will be just as important to the team in the locker room. Boychuk is also a stand-up guy who will take responsibility for his actions and is quick to credit others.
The bottom line is Boston’s loss is Long Island’s gain.
Leddy will also have a positive impact. He is a more gifted skater than Boychuk and has a boatload of offensive talent. However, he often found himself in Joel Quenneville’s doghouse in Chicago for his tendencies to freelance.
On a team loaded with superstars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith, Quenneville needed someone whom he could criticize. Leddy often served as his whipping boy.
I’m not saying he was treated unfairly, but once Leddy made a few mistakes, there was no way he was going to change Quenneville’s mind.
The move to the Islanders will be a new beginning for Leddy. If he can tone down his forays into the offensive zone just a bit and upgrade his defensive performance, he will become a star.
The Islanders are going to be a playoff team in 2014-15. The addition of Boychuk and Leddy give them the strength on the blue line to complement what they have on the offensive end.
They just may be the surprise of the NHL as they prepare to close the Nassau Coliseum and move into their new home in Brooklyn a year from now.
This should be a season to remember on the Island.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy
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