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Eye injury ends defenseman Johnny Boychuk's career with Islanders

Johnny Boychuk #55 of the Islanders looks on

Johnny Boychuk #55 of the Islanders looks on in the first period against the Dallas Stars at Barclays Center on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Johnny Boychuk’s playing career with the Islanders is over, the team announced Wednesday, the result of an eye injury the 36-year-old defenseman suffered in March that Boychuk said caused some "irreparable’’ damage.

"My peripheral vision is pretty bad, actually,’’ Boychuk said in an emotional Zoom call with reporters after the Islanders made the announcement. "I think they said optic nerve damage, and some other stuff. But it's been hard to process everything at the same time. I mean, I went and did all these tests and it's, it's just been hard, actually. Really hard.’’

The Islanders, in their press release, did not say Boychuk was retiring from playing hockey, and Boychuk himself danced around the question of whether he is, in fact, retiring.

"I mean, the injury's causing me to stop playing, so I don't know if it's retiring, or [long term injured reserve],’’ he said. "I just know that it's going to cause me to not play because it's basically not safe for me if I can't see things coming.’’

Boychuk is under contract for two more seasons, at a salary cap hit of $6 million per, and there are cap implications that come with him retiring. Should he retire, the Isles’ payroll may be subject to a "cap recapture’’ penalty, which would essentially mean his entire salary wouldn’t come off the books. If he instead goes on LTIR for the next two years, then his salary would count against the $81.5 million salary cap, but the team could exceed the cap by as much as his salary counts, if need be.

The Islanders will likely need that cap relief to sign restricted free agent Mathew Barzal.

Boychuk was injured in a game against the Montreal Canadiens on March 3 when the skate blade of Montreal’s Artturi Lehkonen opened a cut his left eye that required 90 stitches to close. He missed the Islanders’ final three games before the NHL season was halted on March 12 because of the coronavirus.

The Islanders said it was the second injury for the same eye. (Boychuk recalled taking a slap shot in the temple early in his career.)

By the time the league restarted in August, Boychuk was able to play in the first preliminary round game against the Florida Panthers. But he suffered a concussion in that game when he took a hit to the head from Florida’s Mike Matheson. He sat out the next 19 games, at first because of the injury, but later because his replacement, Andy Greene, was playing so well that coach Barry Trotz kept him in the lineup. Boychuk returned for the final two games of the playoffs in the Isles’ 6-game loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference final.

After the Islanders were eliminated and left the bubble, he said he "realized that there was something wrong,’’ and went to get his eye checked out. After two months of examinations, x-rays and MRIs, it became evident he needed to stop playing immediately.

"When you play with it and realize there's something wrong, and then you go and get tests, I don't think it was … really a decision,’’ he said. "It was a life choice, I guess. Because if I was to go and play again, not being able to see somebody coming, and getting hit, I could be a lot worse than what I was.’’

Boychuk, an Edmonton native, played six seasons for the Islanders, scoring 35 goals, with 96 assists, for 131 points in 404 games. He came to the Isles in a 2014 trade with Boston, where he won a Stanley Cup in 2011. He said he doesn’t know what his future holds, but he would like to win another Cup someday.

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