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WILMINGTON, Mass. — Watching him play for the Bruins now, it’s almost impossible to fathom that the Colorado Avalanche once wanted him to play forward.
Not only that — they wanted Johnny Boychuk to be an “energy” forward who would check and drop the gloves and, basically, not much else.
Well, the season after the Bruins acquired Boychuk via trade from the Avs, they let him play defense full-time. He rewarded their confidence with a season for the Providence (AHL) farm club that was worthy of the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top defenseman.
The next season, he earned a spot on the NHL roster the next season, but ample ice time wouldn’t come until nearly a third of the season had passed. When the five-year AHL veteran finally cracked Boston’s lineup, however, he didn’t let go. He hasn’t relinquished his regular position among the Bruins’ top six ever since he finally got that opportunity in 2009-10.
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It’s that type of dedication to hockey and his career that earned Boychuk this year’s Bruins nomination for the Masterton Trophy from the members of Boston’s chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. The Masterton honors the “player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.” All 30 teams pick one nominee and after the season the full membership of the PWHA votes on an overall winner.
“The first, I think, six years, I didn’t know what I was going to be – either a forward or a D man. Even though I wanted to play defense, I had to play fourth-line forward in the minors and grinding it out, and I finally made it here and to get nominated for this is pretty special,” said Boychuk after the Bruins held an optional practice at Ristuccia Arena today.
Julien on Boychuk: ‘He’s come a long way’
Now in his third full NHL season, and just months removed from signing a contract extension that could keep him in Boston two more seasons beyond this current campaign, Boychuk has flourished as a solid defender who frequently plays on the Bruins’ top pair with superstar Zdeno Chara. Boychuk’s developed a rocket-like shot that’s become a dangerous weapon for the Bruins from the blue line, and his skill with the hip check makes him one of the more intimidating hitters for puck-carriers approaching the Boston zone to attack.
Head coach Claude Julien, who worked his way up through the minor leagues as both a coach and a player, harkened back to Boychuk’s early-season healthy scratches in 2009-10 as the best example of why he’s a worthy Masterton nominee.
“At one point it looked like he was going to be that minor-leaguer who was going to be an All-Star there and spend most of his career in that league. He got an opportunity with us and he took full advantage of it,” said Julien. “People that remember, he was a healthy scratch for a long time before he even got a chance to be a regular on our hockey club. But when he did, because he’d worked so hard as an extra, he kept himself in real good shape and kept himself as sharp as he could, when that opportunity came he took advantage of it.”
After he was traded to the Bruins for Matt Hendricks, Boychuk owned the AHL during the 2008-09 season with 20 goals and 66 points. However, he only received one call-up, and played one NHL game, during that season. Matt Lashoff (until he was traded) and Matt Hunwick were ahead of Boychuk in the pecking order. Boychuk didn’t let being passed up put him in a foul mood.
“I knew that I was a little bit older than their prospects that they wanted to develop a little bit more and to give them a chance first,” he said. “But you have to keep sticking with it and stay positive. Especially when you’re doing well down there, you can’t really do much more but just keep doing the same thing and eventually you’ll get your chance to come up here.”
In 51 games in 2009-10, Boychuk posted 5-10-15 totals, and then he followed that with two goals in the postseason. Last year, he only produced 16 points (three goals) in 69 regular season games, but posted 3-6-9 totals in 25 postseason games. His play with Andrew Ference on Boston’s second pair was a major reason the Bruins were able to win the Stanley Cup.
This season, he’s scored at a 5-9-14 clip in 68 games. As important as his production has been his physicality and willingness to get in front of a shot puck. Boychuk’s withstood numerous violent interactions with opponents’ slap shots and some bone-crunching hits he’s initiated and received.
He’s battled through injury with the same determination he battled through the Avs’ ill-conceived plan to make him a forward and the Bruins’ plan to give other blueliners a NHL shot before him. He’s written a much better resume for himself than many would have a few years ago, and now he can add the Masterton nomination to that list of accomplishments.