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NHL prospects who didn't stick with team adjust to life back in junior

Thursday, 10.31.2013 / 5:24 PM The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - The boys are back on the bus after getting their initial taste of life in the NHL.

A few players of this year's top draft class — considered one of the best talent crops in recent years — have managed to stay in the NHL, such as Calgary's Sean Monahan, Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon and Nashville's Seth Jones.

For the rest, they will just get a taste of big league hockey for now after being returned to their Canadian major junior teams following training camp.

For these players, long bus rides between games have become the norm again.

"It's definitely a little different after being on the plane with the Canucks and going back to those long bus trips now," said Bo Horvat, picked ninth overall by Vancouver. "But it's something you've got to do."

Horvat joins Hunter Shinkaruk, a Calgary native who was chosen 24th overall by the Canucks, and other players who have had to return to junior instead of going to the minors because they were drafted as 18-year-olds. They hope to heed lessons learned from their brief time in the NHL as they continue their development.

"Obviously, coming back to junior was a little bit different than it was at the pro level," said Shinkaruk, who was among the Canucks' final cuts. "But I'm lucky. We have a good team this year, and I still have my friends back here, so it's been good.

"At the NHL level, it's a little bit different. The crowds are a little bit bigger. The players are a little bit bigger and stronger. It's a little bit different coming back again to junior, but I feel like I have to continue to work on my skills and make sure I'm ready to make the jump next year."

Shinkaruk, who hopes to return to the Tigers' lineup Friday when they host the Tri-City Americans after being sidelined the past three games with a sore hip, admitted he had to adjust mentally to life in the junior ranks again.

"Obviously, it was a little bit tough," he said. "I felt like I had a good training camp. I felt comfortable with everything that I did, and I felt comfortable going back, knowing that everything I could have done to make the team, I feel like I did. That's probably all I can control. Obviously, being a younger kid and all things that come along with it, that makes it tough to play in the NHL at 18 and 19."

Vancouver coach John Tortorella decided to send Shinkaruk, who impressed with his speed, creativity and scoring ability, Horvat back to junior even though the Canucks were facing injuries and inconsistency in their forward ranks.

He was concerned that the faster pace and more physical style of the NHL could hamper their growth as players. He also wanted them to get more playing time than they would on Vancouver's third or fourth lines.

"I think that, down here, it was tough (being cut), but it was good for me to go back and work on my game and make sure that I can be an important player (with the Canucks) next year, and that's going to be my goal every single day," Shinkaruk said.

Playing with Canuck superstars Daniel and Henrik Sedin at times, he also learned how hard he has to push himself to become an NHL regular.

"I was playing with the best players in the world and, when you do that, you really have to push yourself to be faster and be stronger and shoot the puck harder," said Shinkaruk.

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defenceman Darnell Nurse, the top pick of the Edmonton Oilers (seventh overall) is taking a similar view as he toils again in the OHL.

"I'm just going to improve my whole game and see where that takes me," said Nurse, a Hamilton native who has three goals and 12 assists in 13 games.

Even before joining the Oilers for a prospects tournament in Penticton, B.C., Nurse steeled himself to the fact that teenage defencemen rarely make the NHL on their first attempts. He does not want to address the question of how close he is to being NHL-ready.

"I'm just going to go out there and work on the small parts of my game, because they're what are going to allow me to get to the next level," he said. "I know my chance will come."

While his NHL opportunity is on hold, Nurse is pursuing a different opportunity — a chance for an OHL title and Memorial Cup berth. The Greyhounds are off to a blazing start, leading the OHL's West Division with an 11-1-2 mark heading into Friday's road game against the Sarnia Sting.

"We have a great team here in Sault Ste. Marie," he said. "Everyone's working hard every day, so it's just fun to go out and play."

By being returned to their WHL, OHL and QMJHL clubs, many of the young stars will get a nice consolation prize — a chance to compete for Canada at the world junior championships in Sweden.

"That's going to be one of my goals this year," Shinkaruk said. "Obviously, being cut last year was tough, but it's a tournament that I've watched since I was a kid, and the chance to be on that team and bring back a gold medal to Canada would be unbelievable."

Horvat also hopes to play in the world junior tournament. His London Knights squad is already assured of playing in the Memorial Cup, because they will host the national championship tournament.

"It's a great opportunity this year," said Horvat, who has six goals and seven assists in 11 games with the Knights. "I'm just trying to take the positives out of (being cut by the Canucks)."

The Rodney, Ont., native is working on adjusting his speed to the NHL level, something that Tortorella indicated in the pre-season he needed to do.

"I'm just trying to get a little faster, try get my pace up and be a little quicker with the puck," Horvat said.

The Knights (8-5-1) have had a slower time lately with a week off in their schedule, but return to action Friday at home against the Sudbury Wolves. Horvat's return to junior allows him to be close to his family home in Rodney while he billets and completes Grade 13 in London.

Montreal Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher, 21, who was returned to the WHL's Vancouver Giants a couple of times after being drafted by the Habs in the fifth round (147th overall) in 2010, suggested this year's crop who did not make the cut will benefit from going back to junior.

But players who think they are capable of being in the NHL now should also heed the warning that a demotion offers.

"You always want to get to the NHL as quickly as you can," said Gallagher. "That's your main goal, but when they send you down it's a message that you're not quite there yet."

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