My head knew it was coming, but my heart sure wasn't ready for it.
By now, you've had your chance to wrap your head around the Boston Bruins trade of defenseman Johnny Boychuk to the New York Islanders, just three days before the start of the 2014-15 National Hockey League season. His former teammates have doted all the usual cliches upon him — from “respect” to “warrior” — and with good reason. He was well-liked, a reliable blue-line presence and a cornerstone of the Bruins’ Top-4 defensemen.
All that is fine and dandy, but the real question that needed to be asked in the aftermath remains: Is Boston better off for having made the trade?
Certainly, questions about Boychuk’s character are easier to answer.
Some background: Boychuk’s name began being bandied about in trade rumors just hours after the Bruins were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring by Montreal. It was clear that general manager Peter Chiarelli wasn't afforded the luxury he had the previous off season when he could keep most everybody on the roster for another go-round.
There was nary a word written or spoken about the team and its salary cap situation this summer that didn’t seem to include the disclaimer at the end: “Of course, if Johnny Boychuck is traded, it would clear up more than $3 million.” The Torey Krug and Reilly Smith saga, that dragged through the first week of training camp, continued to hammer the point home.
Chiarelli got the two young players signed, at less than market value, and it seemed Boychuk (and others) were safe from being traded. Just days from the start of the season, there aren't many teams looking to make serious moves — instead relying on a longer look at their own rosters under everyday NHL competition before jumping to conclusions.
But the problem remained: There was no wiggle room for Chiarelli had he needed to make a move. None. Three-hundred-thousand in cap space isn't even a drop in the bucket when it comes to needing a true NHL-caliber player.
Are the Bruins better now than they were five days ago, when it appeared Boychuck would be in the Opening Night lineup tomorrow against the Philadelphia Flyers? No, they’re not.
Instead of slotting Boychuk in for 20 minutes of ice time, they’re going to have to use some combination of either Krug, Matt Bartkowski, or Kevan Miller. All have their warts as young defensemen in Claude Julien’s system — Krug is too often muscled off the puck in his own zone, Bartkowski is prone to mental mistakes, and Miller got off to a promising start in a B’s sweater before flopping down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Those warts only become easier to spot with added ice time and responsibility.
But here’s what the Boychuk trade does grant the Bruins: The ability to be better.
Three million dollars can go a long way toward plugging a gap created out of necessity.
Sure, you’d love to see Boychuk here for the season before he hits the market for unrestricted free agency in the spring. But if you believe that it was a reasonable option, and that an entire 82-game grind will play out without any long-term injury concerns or precipitous drops in anticipated production somewhere in your lineup, I’ve got the proverbial beachfront property in Iowa to sell you.
Here’s a scenario you should consider before you go all “Peter Chiarelli thinks he’s Bill Belichick now” on us. Zdeno Chara or Brad Marchand or Carl Soderberg or Dennis Seidenberg (remember last winter?) or Loui Eriksson (it’s been known to happen) or David Krejci or Patrice Bergeron (it’s happened, twice) or Tukka Rask are injured and miss months. Who fills that gap? It’s not going to be Ryan Spooner or Malcolm Subban or David Warsofsky. It’s going to have to be a legitimate NHL player.
Can you grab said NHL player for first- or second-line duty, starting netminding or a Top-4 defensive role with a few hundred thousand dollars? No, you can’t. Chiarelli needed the Boychuk trade to make the salary cap room.
Chiarelli has been criticized, rightly so, for being so close to the cap and having to deal with the likes of Krug and Smith in a hard-nosed, potentially ugly fashion. For dealing away draft picks that mortgage the future for the ability to win now. For seemingly losing sight of all the responsibilities that go with being the GM and keeping this organization competitive beyond just the 2014-15 season.
In leveraging Boychuk for draft picks and some salary savings, Chiarelli has managed to get this train back on the rails.
No, the Bruins aren't better on the eve of Opening Night than they were a week ago — at least not in the lineup they’ll throw on the ice against the Flyers.
But, yes, the Bruins are in a much better situation to address any issues that likely show up in the next six months.
My heart may not like it, but my head knows it was the right thing to do.
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