Boychuk back on the map

by Paul Branecky || AHL On The Beat Archive

Given the way he bounced around from organization to organization last season, one could forgive Zach Boychuk for wondering where he fit in.

A few months into what’s beginning to look a lot like a bounce-back season, that place could be right where he started five years ago.

Over the last month and change, no player in the AHL has scored goals like Boychuk — 12 over 16 games, to be exact. On the morning of Nov. 14, he had two, tied for fifth on the team. When the Checkers dispersed for a holiday break this past weekend, he had 14, tied for fifth in the league.

A player who went on waivers four times last season, causing him to very nearly sign in Europe over the summer, it looks as though the 24-year-old, first-round draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2008 may be re-establishing himself as an NHL prospect, just when it looked like that window was ready to close.

“When you’re a young guy for however many years as you are, you get those opportunities and they’re not always 100 percent fair, but I wasn’t able to take advantage of them,” said Boychuk, who leads the Checkers with 27 points in 29 games. “You get passed over by all 30 teams and they kind of give up on you, so I’ve had to clean the slate a little bit.”

He almost cleaned it entirely, considering options in Russia, Switzerland and Sweden before the Hurricanes re-signed him at the 11th hour, just prior to training camp. Even then, with some of his former teammates catching up to him, new players coming in and young players turning pro from the junior and college ranks, his profile within the organization wasn’t as high as in previous years.

It only took a few months for that to change, with the Hurricanes, who haven’t needed much help from Charlotte this season — at least when it comes to players who don’t happen to be goaltenders — handing him a recall on Dec. 6. It was likely never going to last more than one game given that the injuries that necessitated it were very minor, but he still made an impression, claiming that Carolina’s Ron Francis called it the best he’s played in the NHL.

“It was huge for my confidence to show I can still play in the NHL and that Carolina still has that faith in me,” said Boychuk, who earned an assist in the Hurricanes’ comeback win over San Jose. “I was happy with my training camp there, I felt like I played one of my best games and that I’m going to get another opportunity soon.”

A high scorer throughout his AHL career, it’s fair to wonder what makes his current level of production any different than what he’s done in the past. For starters, the sheer volume of the goals is greater (“I’ve never had a stretch where I scored this much,” he said), but more than anything else, it could be that he’s answering questions about the most consistent knock on his game since turning pro — consistency.

“For the most part, it’s a cliche, but that’s what I’ve heard almost every time,” he said, referring to feedback from coaches and management across his various stops. “They’ll say I had a good shift here and there or I’ll score a goal, but then I seem to let off the gas.”

That was even true earlier this season, with Daniels challenging him to raise his “compete level” and be an offensive leader on a team that has lost some firepower from previous seasons. Cory Stillman, a former Hurricanes player and current member of the team’s development staff, advised him to make sure he was bringing the same high level of enthusiasm to the rink every day, whether it came naturally or not — a tougher proposition than one might think during November’s seven-game losing streak.

Since then? He’s found the scoresheet in 11 of his last 16 games. His four-game goal streak from Dec. 12-20 (five goals total) was the team’s longest in over a year. He’s making smarter plays in the defensive zone and even laying a big open-ice hit or two. Perhaps most impressively, he’s hounding after loose pucks instead of waiting for them to find him.

“He’s not standing around and watching — he’s making things happen,” said Checkers coach Jeff Daniels. “He’s feeling good about his game, and he should be.”

“[Coaches in Charlotte] have always told me they think I can play in the NHL because I have the speed, I have the shot and I have all the tools, there just has to be that consistency,” said Boychuk. “I had a little bit of a slump and the team went through that losing streak, but I think I learned a lesson from that. It’s made me a better player.”

Of course, the definition of consistency is that he’ll have to keep it up. With the Hurricanes short on younger players they could exchange for Boychuk and the cap space needed to bring a player up for the sake of doing so, he may have to keep it up for a while. If the time comes, his league-leading 10 power-play goals, only two away from Charlotte’s single-season franchise record, will be of particular interest to an NHL club that’s struggled in that area all season.

Fueled by his past experiences, including last season’s low points that shook his confidence, Boychuk plans to remain focused on that goal.

“I’m not giving up,” he said. “I’m still a young guy and have a lot of years left, but I’m trying to treat every day like it’s my last.”