Johnny Boychuk may just turn out to be exactly what the New York Islanders needed to start to realize their potential and return the franchise to respectability. The Islanders have begun this 2014-15 season 3-0-2 and appear poised to make their second playoff appearance in three years after missing the dance from 2007-2012. Everyone around the NHL had an eye on the young, up-and-coming New York Islanders heading into this season but when general manager Garth Snow went out and acquired defenseman Boychuk (from Boston) and Nick Leddy (from Chicago) as the preseason wound down, that focus became sharper. After signing unrestricted free agents Jaroslav Halak, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kumelin, Snow had stabilized the arguably the Islanders most glaring weak spot, the blue line, and in the process brought two Stanley Cup winners to his young team.
“The moment he came here, the moment he and Leddy came here, just the fact that they had won Stanley Cups and they’re both grounded people, you could tell right away that our team felt different about themselves,” Islanders assistant coach Greg Cronin recalled on the Top Shelf Radio Show October 16. “Not only in the way we practiced and played subsequent games but just the way the dressing room vibe was. It was a huge blessing for us and I can’t underscore that enough.”
Cronin cited a perfect example of Boychuk’s instant effect and leadership that came during his first practice with the team. As practice was winding down, superstar captain John Tavares and another player headed for the dressing room.
“Hey guys how you gonna get better if you leave the ice so early?” Boychuk asked.
As Cronin pointed out, he appeared to be half-joking and half-serious but the fact that Boychuk, the new guy, had no issues asking his new captain that question, instantly showed everyone on the ice just how dedicated the former Bruin is to winning.
“When coaches are trying to get players to achieve excellence, the best barometer for that is players that on the ice that live that excellence every day,” Cronin said. “And Tavares does and [Boychuk] just caught him on a day he was injured or tired and just decided to get off. But to be able to have players speak to that not only with their actions but following up with some words is just a huge impact on particularly a young team. He’s been great and I can’t say enough about it.”
Then there’s the respect and prestige Stanley Cup winners like Boychuk and Leddy carry and the effect that can have on a young team like the Islanders. According to Cronin that effect occurred instantly in the Islanders dressing room.
“There is a humongous impact that a guy like that will have on a locker room with a lot of kids if the guy has natural leadership abilities and he has contagious enthusiasm for the game,” Cronin said. “It’s like you’re buying a car but you don’t actually look under the hood of the car until you get the car. So you do your homework because that’s part of the scouting department’s job and we heard nothing but good things about him as a person and as a player. Obviously the absence of him created quite a ripple effect in Boston in those days after he was gone. That just amplified what he meant as a leader.
The moment he came here, the moment he and Leddy came here, just he fact that they had won Stanley Cups and they’re both grounded people, you could tell right away that our team felt different about themselves,” Cronin recalled. “Not only in the way we practiced and played subsequent games but just the way the dressing room vibe was. It was a huge blessing for us and I can’t underscore that enough.”
Boychuk’s influence hasn’t just been felt in the dressing room and through his leadership presence but also on the score sheet. The 6-foot-2, 225 pound rear guard has been off to a roaring start with two goals and four assists in five games — which to many was surprising considering his career high in points was the 23 he amassed last season in Boston. But for Cronin — who in his job as an assistant coach has to pre-scout — Boychuk’s sudden offense is not that surprising. Cronin was part of the Maple Leafs coaching staff in 2013 when Toronto suffered the epic collapse in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Boston and saw the natural scoring ability Boychuk had.
“We all knew we had a pretty heavy shot and obviously we (Toronto) had a pretty good relationship with them (Boston) a year and some change ago in that seven-game series,” Cronin recalled. I think he was hidden in the shadows of the [Zdeno] Chara-[Dennis] Seidenberg and then Chara-[Torey] Krug power plays and then they’d slide [Patrice] Bergeron up top there with Chara,” Cronin pointed out. “So he was part of that second power play unit that would get the last 20-30 seconds. he just wasn’t getting the minutes he’s getting now.
It’s funny because every organization, they end up stumbling upon a guy. I remember back when Adrian Aucoin was with us (the Islanders) back in 2001, they thought he was at the end of his career after he went through Vancouver and Tampa. Then boom he comes to us and all of a sudden his power play abilities get reborn and off he goes. I think Boychuk’s never been known as a power play guy but if you look at his stats there was one year (2008-09 in Providence) he had like 66 points as a defenseman,” Cronin said. “Those are good stats and those stats usually translate when a player has those natural abilities. Sometimes there’s flash in a pan but he’s had it. I just think [Boston] has been so stacked with power play personnel that he hasn’t been allowed to let it grow there and now he’s getting that chance here.”
Boychuk’s making the best of that chance and the Islanders are reaping the benefits.