by Mark Caswell Jr. | AHL On The Beat Archive
Hunter Shinkaruk’s hat trick, the first of his professional career, at the Utica Comets’ home opener on Oct. 21 served as more than just three goals en route to a win.
It foreshadowed what would grow to become a great start to the 2015-16 season for the sophomore forward.
The start to this season looks drastically different compared to the start of his rookie campaign, when he would not get his sixth goal until the team’s 38th game.
The Vancouver Canucks’ 2013 first-round draft pick has needed less time, much less time, to reach the six-goal plateau this year. Through eight games he has scored six times to go with a pair of assists. Shinkaruk followed up his impressive home opener performance with a point in three straight games, including a two-goal game on Oct. 30 against the Binghamton Senators.
His progress has not been lost on Comets head coach Travis Green.
“I’ve seen improvement,” Green said. “Last year Hunter would take pucks wide and take it around the net and not get pucks to the inside and not get himself to the inside. He’s improved in that area and I’m expecting he’s going to continue to improve as he gets older and stronger.”
In an interview with Sportsnet.ca last week Shinkaruk agreed with his coach’s assessment, and credits a mixture of things for his drastic improvement this season.
“I think it’s a mixture of a few things,” Shinkaruk said. “A little bit more opportunities, more knowing the league, things like that have added up to allow me to have success so far.”
It wasn’t all bad for Shinkaruk during his rookie campaign. He did end up with a 31-point season, which included a run in which he scored a goal in nine of 13 games, from March 14 to Apr. 12. He even kicked off the Comets’ postseason campaign with the franchise’s first playoff goal just minutes into Game 1 in Chicago.
However, going from the WHL, where he was an elite goal-scorer, to the American Hockey League there was the expected adjustment period.
The Canucks took Shinkaruk with the 24th overall pick in 2013 in part due to his speed and creativity with the puck. While those skills are admired and valued, the professional ranks place more of a premium on the chip-and-chase and grind-it-out types of assets — which is a style Shinkaruk admitted that he had to adapt his game to.
“It is a lot different than in the WHL and a lot different than even pre-season in the NHL," Shinkaruk said in a phone interview with Metro News last year. "I’m learning a lot of different areas of the game. Obviously I still enjoy playing offense the most. But it’s been good to learn different sides of the game."
After putting up six points, four goals and two assists, in 23 Calder Cup Playoff games last year, the Calgary, Alta., native went to work on improving his game during the off-season.
Shinkaruk headed to Halifax, N.S., to train under the tutelage of Andy O’Brien. O’Brien, now the Pittsburgh Penguins’ director of sport science and performance, is known for training elite hockey players such as Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon. Together the tandem worked on getting stronger, and improving Shinkaruk’s shot for the upcoming season.
As the home opener showed, what they worked on has paid off, and Shinkaruk won’t soon forget it.
“It was a great night,” Shinkaruk said of the home opener. “I think it made the night a little bit more special on top of the banners being raised. I’m a guy who loves to score goals and getting to celebrate with the home fans who were going crazy was really cool. I went back to the bench and just had a huge smile on my face. It is something I’ll remember for a long time.”