Vet Defenseman Getting It Done At Both Ends As New York Makes Strides To Regain Last Season's Playoff Form

By Jeff Capellini
WFAN.com

Johnny Boychuk is off to the kind of start both he and the Islanders desperately needed.

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For the first time in ages, defense and goaltending are clear strengths of this team. And considering how the new-look offense will continue to be a work in progress, the fact that the Isles’ defensemen are scoring goals and setting up quality chances is a major boon to the cause.

Two seasons ago, the Isles were really good at creating scoring opportunities from their back end. Offensive zone times were exceptional and, as a result, the advanced stats that so many fans and analysts buy into ended up trending quite well in New York’s favor.

Boychuk was great during the 2014-15 season as he made the most of his 21-plus minutes per night on average, but injuries took a toll on him last season, and the Isles’ defense, as a unit, wasn’t nearly as prolific offensively. Though Boychuk’s numbers were still representative of a solid top-four NHL defenseman, there were whispers that age was beginning to move his needle in the opposite direction.

Now, that’s not to say Boychuk is actually old by any standards. He will turn 33 in January and likely will be at the very least serviceable once his huge contract gets into its later years. But on a team littered with 20-somethings and with league-wide trends demanding that defensemen play a more up-tempo, puck-moving style than in years past, it’s easy for one to assume that an “older” player has lost a step if he doesn’t fit into the current prototypical mold.

Johnny Boychuk celebrates after scoring shorthanded for the Islanders against Arizona

Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk celebrates his third-period shorthanded goal against the Arizona Coyotes at Barclays Center on Oct. 21, 2016. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

As I stated earlier, Boychuk’s bugaboo has been injuries, but never really the overly serious kind. He just occasionally suffers the type of ailments that force him to miss games here and there. Though he has never played in more than 77 games in a season during his nine-plus year career, there’s really nothing wrong with a defenseman playing 72 and 70 per season, as Boychuk did during his first two seasons with the Islanders.

Known for his big hits and powerful slap shot during his time with the Boston Bruins, Boychuk has been asked to be a more responsible player with the Islanders. That’s what happens when you are logging top-four minutes more consistently. These days, you don’t necessarily see him throwing his body around with the same reckless abandon as he did earlier in his career. Now, it’s about assignments and knowing when to jump into the play. Boychuk still has plenty of offensive potential, but he can defer to the Isles’ quicker defensemen and play more of a stay-at-home style, picking and choosing when to seize opportunities.

Through six games this season, perhaps because head coach Jack Capuano has kept him to a more manageable 19 minutes on average per night, Boychuk has looked like a new man. He has four points, including goals in each of the Isles’ last two games, pivotal markers that helped his team get back to .500.

Boychuk was all over the place Friday night during the Isles’ win over visiting Arizona. He used his deceptive speed in the first period to split two defensemen on an odd-man rush. Though his backhand was stopped, forward Ryan Strome was there to clean up the rebound as New York built a 2-0 lead.

In the third period with the game tied, Boychuk ripped a shorthanded goal from the point through a maze for the game-winner.

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On Sunday against visiting Minnesota, Boychuk capped a three-goal second-period outburst by the Islanders with a seeing-eye blast from just inside the blue line. The Isles went on to win 6-3, setting their season high for goals in a game.

That kind of offense has been prevalent from the Islanders’ defensemen throughout the early part of the season. Five of their top six have scored goals, with only Travis Hamonic failing to do so in the first six games. Hamonic, however, has a pair of assists.

With the Islanders continuing to work out the kinks up front — big-ticket free agent winger Andrew Ladd, for example, has just a single assist so far with his new club — their defensemen will have to keep pushing the play on the offensive end or risk playing more games with less margin for error on the scoreboard.

Boychuk looks totally at ease right now, carrying himself as an impact player, even though the Isles’ defense has been constructed to be a sum of its parts. If he can stay healthy, there’s no reason why he cannot eclipse his career high in goals (nine, set in 2014-15 and then equaled last season) and points (35, two seasons ago).

And let’s not forget his defensive prowess. Boychuk has a career plus-minus rating of plus-123, having never finished as a minus player in any season. Some of that had to do with being on the Bruins, who were among the best teams in the Eastern Conference for several years during his tenure. But when he joined the Isles, defense was by no means his new team’s strong suit.

Now it is, and Boychuk is as important a cog as the Isles have.

But what remains to be seen is how much Capuano will choose to use him in advantageous situations. Boychuk has been a mainstay on the penalty kill during his time with the Islanders (New York’s unit led the NHL as of Tuesday morning), but hasn’t really been showcased on the power play with consistency. The fact remains Boychuk has the stick skills and speed to play man-up, not to mention sporting a slapper that rivals the better defensemen in the Eastern Conference. It’s up to Capuano to make use of it, especially if it takes longer for youngster Ryan Pulock, known for his own howitzer, to come into his own.

We have no idea what the Islanders will be, but most of the concerns center around getting more scoring from forwards not named John Tavares. In the interim, this team has the personnel to play the game any way necessary to have a chance to win every night.

Like Hamonic, Boychuk is a heart-and-soul player. Though he’s not a career Islander and perhaps is not viewed by fans in the same manner as Hamonic, he’s just as important.

As Boychuk goes, so may the Islanders. Let’s put the Father Time concerns to rest.

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Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet