Photo: Utica Comets forward and Vancouver Canucks prospect Hunter Shinkaruk (#9) played in just 18 WHL games in the 2013-14 season for the Medicine Hat Tigers (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)
Little did the Vancouver Canucks know when they drafted forwards Bo Horvat (ninth overall) and Hunter Shinkaruk (24th overall) in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft, that the two would become great friends and, for a brief time, teammates while Horvat was on an AHL conditioning stint with the Utica Comets.
“We’ve kind of been through everything together,” Shinkaruk said of him and Horvat. “The draft, signing on the first day, all the NHL exhibition games and stuff, he’s probably my best friend. To have him down here has been nice. He’s a great kid, an exciting center and he’s very reliable. It’s definitely always a good time to play with him.”
Shinkaruk, like Horvat, is also coming off an injury – one that cost him most of his final junior season with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL and required a surgery in November of 2013 to fix.
“Obviously, having to get hip surgery at 19 is something that was pretty tough to handle,” Shinkaruk said. “But I feel great. I did a lot of hard work over the off-season and Vancouver has helped me out a lot to get to the point where I am at now. Hockey is the thing I love most, so to be on the ice playing is a special feeling.”
Shinkaruk is still adjusting to the daily rigors of playing professional hockey, even more so after a lengthy absence last year, but there’s no questioning his offensive abilities.
“I think so, that’s my game,” Shinkaruk said of creating offense right away at the AHL level. “I’m a kid who is supposed to go out there and put up points, create chances for my team. It’s kind of how it’s always been. Even when I was up in NHL exhibition games, that was what they expected of me.
“Obviously, getting used to the pro game takes a little bit but I feel like every game is getting better and better. Hopefully I pick up where I left off in junior.”
While the biggest adjustment to the pro-game for most players is getting used to the speed and skill level of the opposition, for Shinkaruk it’s much more simple than that.
“Probably the biggest difference is just playing hockey again,” Shinkaruk said after a recent Comets game. “Come to the rink every day for practice, being ready for back-to-back games and just getting used to all that stuff again. I haven’t had to do that for quite a while now.”
Shinkaruk knows that the pressure is on, being a high draft pick for a Canadian NHL franchise, but it’s something he almost looks forward to.
“For sure,” Shinkaruk said regarding added expectations placed upon him, adding, “But I think that at the same time that, from a young age, my dream was to be a first round NHL Draft pick and have the eyes on me. You do all the hard work in the summer to be on the ice and bring smiles to fans and bring them out of their seats. That’s what I love to do. I don’t know if it’s pressure I put on myself. It gets me excited and it let’s me know that the hard work that I have to continue to put in is going to pay off.”
While there is no rushing Shinkaruk along in his development, he’s playing well in the AHL with Utica in his first pro season with eight points (4G, 4A) through 18 games played.
“If I just come and keep working hard, I’ll get my chance,” Shinkaruk said. “When I’m up there, it’s up to me to stay there.”
If Shinkaruk wants to play alongside his friend Horvat, it will have to be in the NHL with Vancouver. Following a five-game conditioning stint in the AHL with Utica, Horvat was recalled back to the NHL. Though he went pointless in five games in the AHL, he now has four points (1G, 3A) in his first nine NHL games. Horvat has been informed by Canucks’ head coach Willie Desjardins that he will be sticking with the NHL club past his nine-game tryout.
“His game isn’t going to revolve around just getting points,” Utica’s head coach Travis Green said of Horvat. “There’s no doubting if he’s a good hockey player or not, for me he’s going to play in the NHL. He should have a long [NHL] career. I like the way he played and more importantly, I liked the way he progressed from his first game until his last game here. I’m excited to see how he does [in the NHL].”
Horvat has put up points throughout his career, including a 74-point regular season his final year in the OHL with the London Knights, but it’s his two-way game and play away from the puck that has many, including Green, believing Horvat has a bright future ahead of him in the NHL with the Canucks.
“I just want to play a 200-feet game, play well defensively and bear down on any chances I can get,” Horvat said of the kind of game he wants to bring to Vancouver. “That’s the way I’ve played my whole life.”
Ultimately, his stay in the AHL was a short one, but Horvat certainly isn’t taking lightly his time in the minors. In fact, he embraced it as something very beneficial to his development and rehabilitation back to game-shape.
“I just wanted to come in and get my pace up,” Horvat said of his AHL stint. “The NHL level is going to be fast-paced hockey and this is great hockey, too, to get my pace up and to get everything going again. To come down here and get in these five games will really benefit me.”
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