He’s ready to take on a leading role on Boston’s defense, and the Bruins appear willing to let him have that opportunity.
After toiling for five seasons in the minors and spending most of the first two months of the season in the press box as a healthy scratch, Boychuk finally got a chance to prove himself at the NHL level late last year.
"I just wanted to stay positive," said Boychuk this summer. "Just practicing with the team and developing myself in practice helped out tremendously. Being patient, for me at least, paid off."
It paid off in a big way in the form of a two-year deal worth $3.75 million. That’s what the Bruins gave Boychuk in June to prevent him from hitting the free-agent market on July 1.
But will that faith be rewarded and Boychuk thrive with increased ice-time and responsibilities this year? Or will Boychuk be exposed when called upon to play a full-time role over the course of an entire season? The Bruins are banking on the former, and believe his steady growth to this point reveals an upward trend that will continue.
"He made great strides this year," said general manager Peter Chiarelli after announcing the signing. "He was patient before he got into the lineup. He learned our system. He’s got a dimensional shot. He competes. He’s got size. But the biggest thing that I saw was that he’s improved from being the Defenseman of the Year in the American League, to being our seventh D to start and working his way into our lineup patiently, but learning along the way."
Boychuk has always had the physical ability. He possesses a booming shot from the point and doesn’t mind throwing his 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame around to punish opposing forwards. But last year his mental game finally started to catch up to those physical tools.
“He still young and right-shot D with shots like that are hard to find,” said Chiarelli. “He’s always competed. In the past he would run around a bit to be physical. What he’s shown me is that he’s learning the game. He’s gaining experience. The defensive position is a hard position to play and he’s gotten better since the American League. … He’s shown a lot of improvement.”
Boychuk played just three of the club’s first 27 games last year before injuries finally gave him a chance to crack the lineup in December. Once in, he did everything he could to make it impossible for Claude Julien to take him out again. Instead, Julien found himself relying on Boychuk more and more as the season went on.
By the time Dennis Seidenberg went down with a sliced tendon in his forearm in early April, Boychuk was ready to step into his spot alongside Zdeno Chara. Boychuk stayed on the top pairing throughout the playoffs, finishing with 2-4-6 totals and a team-high 39 blocked shots. He also averaged 26:10 a game in the postseason, second only to Chara’s 28:07 on the team. He even added 29 hits, including a devastating open-ice crunch on Buffalo’s Matt Ellis that helped swing the momentum of that series.
"Obviously it helps playing with the Norris Trophy winner from last year," said Boychuk of Chara. "He’s a great leader and a great player and it’s obviously going to help me develop my defensive game and my offensive game and it gives me a little more confidence to do things when you have a guy like that playing beside you."
Despite his strong playoff performance, Boychuk isn’t guaranteed a return to that top pairing with Chara this season. Chara and Seidenberg displayed some strong chemistry with each other as well, and Julien could keep them together. But having shown he can complement Chara effectively as well, Boychuk does give Julien some options if he wants to drop Seidenberg down to strengthen the second pairing.
At the very least, Boychuk knows he has a chance to lock down a spot on the second pairing as the trade of Dennis Wideman to Florida has left a vacancy in the top four.
"When they moved Dennis, obviously it maybe makes an opening for me to jump into the top four and maybe play a little bit more minutes than being a 5 or 6 guy," said Boychuk. "So when they moved him they maybe sent a message to me that you better be ready to be a top-four guy."
Chiarelli added another message to Boychuk after he signed him, letting the defenseman know that he still has to earn that increased ice-time.
"He showed that he can play in the top four, but other guys in our group have shown they can play in the top four too," said Chiarelli. “It will be a good competition.”
Boychuk is used to battling for everything he gets, and knows what he has to do to build off his success last year and continue his progression as an NHL defenseman.
"I just want to make sure I play good defensively and when I can, chip in offensively," said Boychuk, who finished with 5-10-15 totals and a plus-10 rating in 51 games in the regular season. "And hopefully if there’s a chance to make a nice big hit I’m going to."
Boychuk was a big hit for the Bruins last year in a season that saw far more underachievers than overachievers. Now they’re banking on him doing even more this season.
NESN.com will answer one Bruins question every day in August.
Thursday, Aug. 26: Will Matt Hunwick bounce back this season or continue his struggles from last year?
Saturday, Aug. 28: Can Claude Julien get the most out of this lineup?
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