Taking a closer look at the struggles of the Islanders’ #55
The days and weeks since the New York Islanders were unceremoniously trounced from the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lighting were perhaps busier than one might expect for a team bounced in the second round.
Less than 48 hours after fans of the blue and orange had to once again watch the team look lackluster at best and entirely disinterested at worst in a game that saw them eliminated, those same fans got some very welcome news. The Islanders’ homegrown Travis Hamonic let everyone else know what he had told GM Garth Snow following them team’s loss—that he had rescinded his trade request and would be returning to the team, presumably for the length of his contract, which sees him collect an average annual salary just north of $3.85 million through the 2019-2020 season.
Islander fans (including this humble scribe) were ecstatic when the news first broke, and they had every right to be. Putting aside his value on ice the for just a moment, who wouldn’t want to have a guy like Hamonic on their team? From emotional interactions with kids struggling through a very particular kind of hell, to heartfelt declarations of loyalty following the loss to simple actions like a show of kindness to a beat reporter’s young son show why Hamonic is all that is right with New York Islanders hockey and sports in general.
But the real reason for celebration is probably still what Hamonic brings to this team. It’s no secret that skill and depth along the blue line and team-friendly contracts are must-haves for any NHL team hoping to capture the Stanley Cup these days. Just look at the teams who have found championship success recently, and each one has a major stud anchoring their defense, along with multiple stand-out if not star contributors on fairly cheap deals. Hamonic’s deal is already a steal for Garth and the rest of the Isles’ front office, and odds are it will only look better as time marches on.
And it’s a good thing too, because Snow, coach Jack Capuano and Isles fans everywhere are probably starting to worry about Johnny Boychuck.
Boychuck was rewarded last summer for a monstrous first season with the Islanders, signing a 7-year, $42 million contract and seemingly signing up to be that stud defenseman for the Islanders over the life on the contract.
That didn’t really work out as planned this season.
He recorded 25 points in the 2015-2016 campaign, including 9 goals and 16 assists, down from his total of 35/9/26 in 2014-2015 (all stats courtesy of Boychuck’s page on Hockey-Reference.com). He also didn’t put as many shots on net, finishing this season with 165 shots on net compared to 192 the year before.
While that decline in offensive production is worrying in and of itself, what’s probably more troubling for Islander fans, coaches and front office is his decline in defensive performance.
His +/- actually rose this season, up to +17 from +15, but they eye test seemed to clash with those numbers. He seemed to get beat or be out of position more often than last year, but the decline wasn’t all that worrying—until the playoffs arrived.
To be frank, Johnny was bad during the playoffs. Very bad. Like, catastrophic.
He didn’t record a single point during the playoffs this year in 11 games after picking up a couple of assists in 7 games against the Capitals. He often seemed invisible on the offensive end, even timid. On more than one occasion, he passed up the chance to uncork the booming slap shot fans had come to expect, seeming more content to fire a quick wrist shot toward the net or try to set up a scoring play via the pass. It almost seemed as though he was avoiding those big shots altogether.
And, once again, his defensive collapses were even more troubling than his lack of scoring.
While his +/- may have improved during the regular season, it took a major hit in the playoffs. When the final horn sounded in game 5 and the Isles lined up for their final handshake line of the year, Boychuck stood at a -7, much worse than the -1 he posted during last year’s playoff run. Even worse, those minus tallies seemed to come at the worst possible time.
He was on the ice for most of the backbreaking goals at Barclay’s Center as the Islanders found seemingly infinite ways to lose games during round two. Time and time again #55 could be seen gliding back to the bench with his dead down while the Bolts celebrated a crucial goal that came on the supposed defensive backbone’s watch.
There was the game-tying goal from Nikita Kucherov’s game tying goal in the last-minute of game 3. If you look closely at the clip, Boychuck was made to look a fool on this play, as Jonathan Drouin’s pass goes right past Boychuck’s stick before landing on Kucherov’s tape.
He was also on the ice for a game-winning goal from Jason Garrison in the final minute of game 4.
There were plenty of other bad moments and goals for #55 during the postseason, but I don’t have the time or the desire to punish myself enough to find clips of all of them.
So that (finally) brings us to the headline of today’s blog: what the hell is wrong with Johnny Boychuck?
The way I see it, there are 4 explanations for the bad play. I’ll start with the most worrying possibilities for my fellow Islander fans, and move towards the better scenarios.
Scenario #1-2014-2015 was all about the money
Johnny Boychuck does not seem to be a stupid man. So, surely, he knew as well as anyone else that he had a lot to gain from a highly productive first year with his new squad, seeing as he was due for a new contract in the offseason. Maybe Boychuck is hockey’s version of Pablo Sandoval, and he was going to decline now that he got his contract.
Luckily for Islander fans, I don’t think that’s the case here. Boychuck has earned the reputation as a leader in both the Boston and New York locker rooms, and that’s not a reputation you get by accident. He’s described time and time again as a top-notch competitor, and he knows what it takes to raise the Stanley Cup, having done it once in Boston and come painfully close a second time.
So then, what is it?
Scenario #2- The spirit is willing, but the body isn’t able
Maybe that reputation is well-earned. Maybe Johnny wants nothing more than to be the symbol of hard-work and an emotional leader for this young team on the rise.
Maybe he just can’t do it anymore.
At 32, Boychuk is no spring chicken, especially considering he’s averaged more than 20:00 on ice per game since coming into the league at the age of 24. That’s a lot of mileage on those legs, and maybe he’s over the hill. If that’s the case, Islander fans must be saying prayers at night that Boychuck isn’t their own personal Dan Girardi of the New York Rangers.
Call me a homer, but I don’t think this is the case either. Boychuck’s TOI didn’t decline much this year, and he didn’t seem as lost as Girardi has for the Blueshirts. I’m going to go ahead and say he has at least a few more productive years in him, even if that $6 million annual cap hit starts to look a bit less than worth it by the end of the deal.
Scenario #3- The spirit is willing, but the body isn’t able, Part 2.
Maybe it wasn’t an age thing. Maybe it was just one specific injury, and Boychuck will be back to his old self after some time to rest in the offseason.
He did miss 10 games or so back in January with a shoulder injury. If that injury never quite healed properly, it could explain a lot of what has been wrong with Boychuck’s game, including his lack of offensive firepower and remarkably poor stick play in his own end.
I’m not sure this theory checks out either, though. Boychuck himself made it clear that he wasn’t dealing with any injuries during the traditional season-closing interviews with the media. So let’s cross this one off too (at least for the time being)
Scenario #4-Everybody hurts/sucks sometimes
Maybe the explanation is something as simple as bad luck. He got all of the bounces this year, and none of them last year. Maybe playing more with Cal de Haan, who also disappointed this playoffs, and less with Leddy, brought him down.
Or maybe it was just that everyone has a bad season from time to time. There are numerous examples of star-caliber players struggling for a time before finding their groove again. Perhaps this is just #55’s down period, and he’ll return with a vengeance come 2016-2017.
That’s going to be tough to prove, however, until we see what next season will bring
My guess? It’s some combination of all 4.
It would be tough for anyone, professional athlete or otherwise, to entirely resist complacency after being guaranteed $42 million over the next handful of years. Boychuck certainly isn’t getting younger, and it isn’t inconceivable that we could have already seen his peak, and we’re now watching the twilight of his career. Just because he says his shoulder wasn’t hurt, doesn’t mean that there wasn’t something wrong with him physically, shoulder or otherwise. Athletes, especially NHL defenseman, have been known to pull the tough guy routine anymore. And yeah, everyone is entitled to a bad few weeks at some point in their lives.
I’m not sure anyone knows what the hell is wrong with Johnny Boychuck. Heck, I’m not even sure if Johnny Boychuck knows what’s wrong with Johnny Boychuck.
But he needs to figure it out early next season. Keeping Hamonic on such a team friendly deal could save the Islanders from plenty of cap-related headaches as they try to build a true contender.
Keeping a declining Boychuck around on a contract that could quickly become an albatross could cause even more.