Are the Isles contenders after Boychuk, Leddy deals?

New York Islanders – acquired D Johnny Boychuk from the Boston Bruins in exchange for second round draft pics in both 2015 and 2016 as well as a conditional third round pick in 2015

Acquired D Nick Leddy and G Kent Simpson from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for D T.J Brennan, D Ville Pokka and the rights to G Anders Nilsson

With the Islanders first round pick in the 2015 draft already owned by the Buffalo Sabres as a painful reminder of the ill-fated Thomas Vanek-Matt Moulson swap last fall, Garth Snow’s team has perhaps more incentive than any other NHL to make a strong push for playoff hockey in 2014-15.

Snow’s offseason was eventful as he sought to strengthen a team that was bad enough in 2013-14 to earn the fifth overall selection in last summer’s draft. Particularly of note, he completely overhauled the crease, letting veteran Evgeni Nabokov walk to Tampa and trivializing the potential roles of the young duo of Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson, both of whom had failed to impress in any of their frequent trails on Long Island over the past few years. In their stead, the Islanders traded for the rights to, and then signed to a long-term deal, former Jennings Trophy winner Jaroslav Halak, and bringing in Chad Johnson from Boston to be his backup.

Understanding that the modern NHL is won with ability on all four forward lines, Snow built depth by bringing in C Mikhail Grabovski and RW Nikolai Kulemin on multi-year deals while taking a low risk flyer on undersized Cory Conacher. This in addition to the expected team-wide improvement that will come from the return to health of superstar John Tavares, who missed the last few months of last season with a torn MCL, sustained in the Olympics.

With the extremes taken care of, the blueline was unscathed. The Islanders had traded away minute-muncher Andrew MacDonald to Philadelphia at the previous trade deadline, and had a number of highly touted prospects, including Griffin Reinhart (fresh off a Memorial Cup victory), Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech and others, who were chomping at the bit to take his place. Unfortunately, the returning blueliners did not seem likely to keep the opposition from making life difficult on the two new netminders.

According to the Vukota projections, the top six blueliners (Hamonic, Visnovsky, de Haan, Donovan, Hickey and Strait) were expected to contribute 25 GVT to the team, with maybe an additional five GVT to account for the contributions of seventh and eighth defenders. None of the six were expected to exceed even 25 points of offense. Of those six, only Hamonic and Hickey were expected to be among the top 75 blueliners across the league, and both of those guys fell between 70-75 on the rankings. To their credit, outside of Strait, the squad were all positive possession players last year on an unadjusted basis. All things considered however, this was not a backline to be feared, between lack of offensive punch, lack of physicality and lack of experience.

Instead of a strong blueline, what Garth Snow had, as the calendar flipped to October, was a bucket of cap space and the willingness to put it to use. On October 4, 2014, three days from when NHL teams had to present their opening night – cap compliant – rosters to the league, Snow engaged in some cap arbitrage, leveraging his cap surplus and some extraneous pieces (draft picks, non-elite blueline prospects and AHL flotsam) for a defensive fortification that will allow him to drop his bottom two from the regular roster while simultaneously providing more time to marinate on the farm for the next generation of Islanders defenders.

Enter the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks. Both Original Six clubs were known to be on the wrong side of the salary cap and heavily rumored to be trying to offload a veteran (read: moneymaking) blueliner to gain cap compliancy. The first shoe to publically drop on Saturday was the deal with Boston. Needing some cap breathing room and with eight blueliners, including three young ones in need of ice time, the Bruins were shopping veteran Johnny Boychuk, a big man with the ability to play on both special teams’ units. A positive possession player despite receiving among the toughest shifts available on the B’s, his contract was set to expire after the 2014-15 season, and with Boston unlikely to be able to retain him in light of the aforementioned cap troubles, a trade was almost inevitable.

By trading the righthanded blueliner, the Bruins can now open the season with over $5 million in cap room while getting regular minutes for both Matt Bartkowski and Kevan Miller. The Islanders, on the other hand, have now given away their top two picks for next summer’s draft, and maybe the third round as well if the mysterious condition is met. If Boychuk can stay healthy (not always a safe proposition for the Edmonton native), the Islanders have a new top four defender. Relatively speaking, Boychuk plays a similar role as that taken by Brian Strait for the Islanders last year, only the new guy does it far more effectively.

Had Garth Snow stopped there, he would have added an additional point or two to the team ledger. Not many trades can make that claim. But Snow did not stop there. Minutes after the Boychuk news broke, the other show dropped. Nick Leddy, used in Chicago as a third pairing even strength defenceman and power play specialist, was also on his way to Long Island, along with a minor league netminder, in exchange for an AHL journeyman with a similar skill set but no upside, a young Finnish blueliner who is still all upside, having yet to play professionally in North America and the contract rights to a tall goalie currently playing in Russia.

Leddy was used in a very sheltered role with Chicago under the watchful eye of Joel Quenneville. Considering his careful deployment on a team that already spent more time than most in the offensive end, only two regular blueliners league wide received a higher share of his shifts starting in the other end. Only23 years old, there is some reasonable thought that Leddy could play a more two-way role if given the breathing room to grow into it and learn from his inevitable mistakes. If that never happens, the floor is already rather high, as the Minnesotan is a tremendous puck rusher with high end offensive vision. He has already surpassed 30 points in a season twice, something only esteemed veteran Lubomir Visnovsky can claim among his new cohort.

Between Leddy and Boychuck, Snow has added two defenders who are both projected to contribute more per GVT – 5.7 and 5.9 GVT respectively – than any other member of the Islanders’ prospective backline. Assuming full health, the moves are expected to relegate Strait and Matt Donovan to the pressbox or Bridgeport. The upgrade to New York should be in the neighborhood of 4-6 points in the standings, with more a possibility considering the improved depth and better quality injury replacement – something that will be tested from day one, as De Haan is likely to start the season on the IR.

As for Chicago, Leddy was never going to play in a more expansive role than the one he had been inhabiting since arriving in trade from the Minnesota Wild in the 2009-10 trade deadline. Further, the Blackhawks needed to strip over $3 million from the payroll and the other expendables were, frankly, not as desirable. The real catch in their return is Pokka, who some believe will one day be even more valuable to an NHL team than Leddy, but who for now will marinate with Rockford of the AHL. In the meantime, Leddy’s role on the third pairing will be taken by one of David Rundblad, a player of similar talents but less experience, Trevor van Riemsdyk, who was signed as an undrafted free agent from the University of New Hampshire last March and has since greatly impressed in rookie camp and the preseason. van Riemsdyk has a well-rounded game and may mature into more of a two-way player than Leddy seemed likely to become. The other candidate is retread Kyle Cumiskey, who showed promise with the Avalanche in 2009-10, but saw his career derailed by injuries and spent the previous two seasons with MODO of the SHL.

In some ways, the Leddy trade can be a win-win in a way that the Boychuk side of the upgrade could not be. If the coaching staff was going to minimize the involvement of Leddy had he remained, they were better off shifting him elsewhere for different assets while giving some room for the organizational strength along the blueline to rise to the surface. If none of the three candidates listed above pans out, Chicago has others in the pipeline, including Adam Clendening, Stephen Johns and Klas Dahlbeck who will be biding their time in the AHL and looking for their own opportunities. It is also not out of the realm of possibilities that one or both of the blueliners who came over from Long Island will leave a mark on the NHL team as Brennan in particular has plenty of experience in the Leddy role.

As mentioned above, the Islanders figure to have gained 4-6 points in the standings for 2014-15 as a direct result of these two trades. Vukota earlier projected 93 from the Islanders, which would have seen them make the playoffs, but without a great margin for error. An additional five points, giving them 98 in total, would put them in contention for the Metropolitan Division crown. The additions of Boychuck and Leddy, both Stanley Cup winners, will not make the Islanders a true Stanley Cup contender for this coming season, but should be enough to keep them firmly above the Wild Card fray and prevent the first round pick they have given to Buffalo from turning into Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

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