Entering his second pro season with the Vancouver Canucks‘ AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets, forward Hunter Shinkaruk already had 97 pro games under his belt, including 23 Calder Cup Playoff games as a member of the Western Conference champions in his AHL rookie campaign in 2014-15.
With his learning curve shortened by a successful rookie season, Shinkaruk is playing with confidence and even more success so far this season as he leads Utica in scoring with 34 points (18 goals, 16 assists) in 39 games.
“I’m a little bit more used to it, another half year under my belt,” Shinkaruk said of his understanding of the pro game. “I think coming into the year, coach [Travis Green] wanted me to be better than I was last year and put a little more weight on my shoulders to try to carry. It’s been good, but we have a great team – I have played with a lot of great players that’s helped me have success.”
Shinkaruk’s 34 points in 39 games this season is more than his offensive production from his 74-game rookie season a year ago. While his summer of 2014 was limited because of hip surgery during his final season of junior hockey with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL, the lengthy postseason run he endured last spring and a full summer of offseason training and camps had him even more prepared for his second pro season.
“I got a lot of experience last year with the playoff run. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know,” Shinkaruk recalled of Utica’s run to the Calder Cup Finals last Spring. “It definitely helped me coming back this year. I know a little bit more about the league, and it’s been great. All that I’m sure has helped me have the start to the season that I have had.”
Vancouver’s second of two first round selections at the 2013 NHL Draft began this season in Utica and almost immediately caught fire, tallying a hat trick in his third game of the season and scoring a total of six goals in his first six games.
Shortly after tallying his second hat trick of the season on November 7th and following that up with his 10th goal of the season in his 12 games, Shinkaruk earned his first NHL call-up to Vancouver where he made his NHL debut in Montreal against the Canadiens at Bell Centre back on November 16th.
“It was unbelievable,” Shinkaruk said of making his NHL debut. “To get a call that you’re going up to the NHL is something that I can’t really put into words how unbelievable a call that was. To get my first game in an NHL arena and it was in Montreal – it was unbelievable. I was so lucky and so fortunate. It just leaves a taste in my mouth that I’m hungry to have more of those games.”
With Utica, Shinkaruk is playing a more prominent role than he was a year ago. He is the Comets’ leading scorer and the team is riding a four-game win streak heading into this week’s games. While Utica is currently in the postseason at third place in the North Division, they are at the top of a logjam where sixth place Syracuse is only three points behind them in the divisional standings.
Furthermore, fourth place in the North Division might not be the final playoff berth in that division; if the fifth place team in the Atlantic Division finishes ahead of the fourth place team in the North, the fifth place team in the Atlantic would then crossover into the North Division as their fourth seed.
“Last year was so good, we were kind of at the top all year,” Shinkaruk said. “This year, it’s a little bit different. We’re a little bit younger of a team. That’s part of hockey, though. We have to find a way to keep winning. We have guys that work hard every single night, so I think if we keep doing that we will find a way. That’s what our team does. I think our team has a lot to look forward to in the second half.”
For Shinkaruk, he has gotten that taste of the NHL in his one-game stint with Vancouver earlier this season. He knows what it takes to play at a high level and has the mindset that he is not going to stop giving his best effort every shift of every game no matter what level he is at. He simply enjoys playing the game of hockey. It is that attitude that has those in the Canucks organization excited at his potential.
“Obviously, every area of my game I can keep getting better at,” Shinkaruk responded when asked what facets of his game he’s looking to work on while in the AHL. “At the end of the day, I’ve had a pretty good start to the season so far. I just have to keep building off of what I’ve done and keep having fun. I love to play this game, and if I come to the rink and enjoy it, keep working hard, it’s going to happen and work out.”
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