Friday March 13th, 2015

Garth Snow won’t be mistaken for Sam Pollock any time soon, but the general manager of the Islanders sure has done a nice job of silencing his critics in the past few months. Through a combination of luck, opportunity and gumption, he’s turned his team into a force in the Eastern Conference and earned himself a lot of respect in the hockey world.

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Snow’s latest bold strike was the signing of veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk (photo, above) to a seven-year, $42 million contract on Thursday. Here’s a guy who was wearing black and gold in the preseason before Snow stole him from the cap-squeezed Bruins before opening night. Since then, Boychuk has been a linchpin of New York’s defense, a smart, physical two-way player who can eat a ton of hard minutes against top opponents, and who sets the tone on the ice and in the dressing room. For a guy who can do all that, $6 million per season is more than fair.

You can’t complain about the length of the deal, either. No, the 31-year-old Boychuk is not expected to be a 25-minute ace when he’s 38, but that’s not the point. Snow gave him seven years because that’s exactly what he would have gotten from another GM on the open market. Snow knows what Boychuk has meant to this team. Why go cheap now?

By locking in Boychuk and fellow summer heist Nick Leddy, Snow now has his top-four defensemen under contract for at least the next three years—Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan are both signed through 2017–18—with the all of them counting $15.4 million collectively toward the cap. Compare that to what a team like the Flyers are paying and it’s easy to see what a bargain that is.

Snow also has the NHL’s leading scorer, John Tavares, No. 1 goalie, Jaroslav Halak, and several complementary pieces locked up through 2018. He might not win the Stanley Cup this year or next, but he’s expertly positioned the Islanders to take a run in the very near future. Hard to see how he doesn’t win GM of the Year.

More news and notes from around the NHL:

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• Boychuk’s name is still a shiv to the ribs in Boston, but his new contract proves that he wouldn’t have lasted beyond this season with the B’s, a team with tight resources that will be better directed towards pending restricted free agent Dougie Hamilton. Currently making just $832,000 in the final year of his entry-level deal, Hamilton could end up counting around $4 million against Boston’s cap next season, similar to what Jonas Brodin signed for with the Wild. The 21-year-old Hamilton is on pace for nearly 50 points—amazing considering how few power plays Boston gets—and while he’s got a lot to learn about playing in his own zone, his potential is obvious. Given a choice between making a big commitment to him or to a player who is a decade older, the Bruins’ preference for Hamilton is easy to understand. 

• At this point it’s a given that Corey Crawford will never get his due, especially from the fairly large segment of Blackhawks fans who view the goalie as the weak link in the team’s championship chain. But even Crawford’s most ardent critics have to tip their caps in his direction given the way he’s been playing lately. With Chicago’s Patrick Kane-less offense in hibernation—the Hawks have scored all of three goals in their last three games—Crawford has single-handedly carried them to five crucial points, stopping 98 of 101 shots in those games. You can do the math on that save percentage.

[daily_cut.nhl]• Not that the Jets haven’t faced adversity this season—this is a team that had its top four defensemen on IR simultaneously, after all—but they’re really up against it now. A 4–2 loss to the Panthers on Thursday, combined with the Kings’ 4–0 defeat of the Canucks, dropped Winnipeg into ninth place in the West, one point behind Los Angeles, which now holds the conference’s second wild-card berth. And now a Jets team that’s already without blueliner Dustin Byfuglien (upper body injury) may have lost yet another top-four defenseman. Tyler Myers left the Florida game with an upper body injury after tumbling awkwardly into the boards. There’s no word yet on his condition, but if he widns up missing any time at all it could be too much for an already stressed team to handle. Winnipeg has been one of the season’s best stories, and not enough has been said about the excellent work that’s been done behind the bench by coach Paul Maurice, but now the Jets really need to show what they’re made of.

• It’s been widely regarded as gospel that the drop-off in this year’s draft will be pretty steep between the consensus top two picks, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, and whoever goes No. 3. But I’m not so sure that’s true anymore. There’s still a significant gap, to be sure, but the buzz that’s building around London Knights forward Mitchell Marner suggests he could be a pretty sweet consolation prize. There’s no guarantee that he will get taken third—need may dictate a defenseman such as Noah Hanifin or Ivan Provorov going there—but Marner is a special talent whose size issues (5' 11", 163 pounds) don’t seem quite as distressing at a time when a smaller player like Johnny Gaudreau is tearing it up for the Flames. Marner is an incredibly creative player, but what I found really impressive while watching him this week was his defensive hustle. He understands what he has to do on both sides of the puck to make it as a pro.

Valeri Nichushkin, out since November after undergoing hip surgery, began skating with the Stars earlier this week and could see action as soon as next week, likely in the AHL where the slower pace would ease his return. It’s a good bet, though, that he gets some time in with the big club before the season ends on April 11.


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