|Lethbridge Hurricanes' center Zach Boychuk is on a point-per-game pace with 7 goals and 10 assists in 17games.
Zach Boychuk doesn’t expect to take any more opponents by surprise.
In his first two seasons with the Western Hockey League’s Lethbridge Hurricanes, the diminutive center often was underestimated by his opponents. But after finishing second in the WHL’s scoring race last season, the secret definitely is out on Boychuk.
As a rookie in 2005-06, Boychuk totaled 18 goals and 51 points, and followed last season with 31 goals and 60 assists in 69 games.
Despite being the focal point of the opposition on most nights, the 5-foot-9, 196-pound Boychuk is back on a point-a-game pace this season, picking up seven goals and 10 assists in the first 17 games of the season.
“My first year was kind of a surprise year for me and then last year was a little similar,” said Boychuk, who turned 18 Oct. 4. “But this year I have to be prepared to play against the top players on the other team. I’m going to have to be prepared every game to play my best.”
Boychuk has risen to the challenge. He is a bit behind his scoring pace from a year ago, but his coach expects the points to start coming more frequently.
“He’s responded well for a younger guy,” said Michael Dyck, who is in his second season as the Hurricanes’ head coach. “He hasn’t been too frustrated. Sometimes he tries to push the issue and maybe tries to do too much as far as getting things going offensively. For the most part, he’s handling it pretty well. “
The speedy Boychuk started the season with an eight-game scoring streak and has been held off of the score sheet just four times in 17 games so far this year.
“He’s a pretty focused kid,” Dyck said. “If I could compare him to somebody at the next level, he would be similar to someone like Daniel Briere. He’s not very big, but he’s quick. His first three steps are explosive. He’s a game breaker. He’s dynamic. He’s got a lot of athletic ability and he’s able to turn not much into something big. He’s got a great shot, quick hands and obviously quick feet.”
After starting October with just one win in seven games, the Hurricanes have won five in a row (including four straight on the road), and are tied for sixth place in the Eastern Conference. They opened a seven-game homestand with a 3-2 win over the Red Deer Rebels Sunday, and are looking to make up ground on the defending WHL champion Medicine Hat Tigers, who started the season with an 11-3-2-0 record.
“I think we’re going to have a really good year,” said Boychuk, one of the WHL’s top-rated forwards for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. “Winning is going to be our main goal. If we can do that, it will help me out (with the draft), as well.”
The Hurricanes finished last in the Central Division with a 33-34-2-3 record last season but are looking to return to the playoffs. Boychuk is expected to be the key ingredient for a successful season.
“Our team is at a stage now where we have to take the next step and go from a .500 team to bigger expectations and try to finish at the top of our division and the top of our conference,” Dyck said. “(Boychuk’s) been given a letter this year (assistant captain). He’s looked at as a leader and we want him to take our hockey club to the next level and help us win.”
Boychuk’s offensive instincts have earned him opportunities to play at the international level. He helped Canada win the Under-18 championship in August 2006 and was part of the CHL’s Canada-Russia Challenge last year. He also suited up in the Canada-Russia Super Series this past summer, and enjoyed the experience in Canada as well as his first trip to Russia.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Boychuk, one of three draft-eligible players to suit up for Team Canada. “I had never been there before. It was like a different world over there. It was good to be coached by a really successful coach in Brent Sutter and to play with all of the other great players. I had a great time.”
Boychuk scored four goals and six points in seven Super Series games, and the Airdrie, Alberta native hopes that he made enough of an impression on the Team Canada brass to get an invitation to the final selection camp for the World Junior Championship squad at Christmas.
“It would be nice to play for the World Juniors,” said Boychuk, who also would be eligible for the team next year. “It would be nice just to get invited to the camp in December if I have a good start. I guess that’s been my goal lately.”
In the meantime, Boychuk is focused on helping the Hurricanes become contenders in the WHL’s Eastern Conference this year. He has made a focused effort to improve his play away from the puck and to contribute more in his own end.
“I think he proved last year that he can score and he’s very explosive offensively,” Dyck said. “We’re working toward rounding his game out and making him solid at both ends of the rink. He’s done a pretty good job of that. We’ve got him killing penalties this year and we’re putting him out in situations that he didn’t see last year. We’re putting some responsibility on him defensively.”
His coach said that Boychuk’s accountability in all aspects of the game will help make the entire team better.
“He proved that we could rely upon him in key situations,” said Dyck, a Lethbridge native who played four seasons in the WHL. “In a lot of ways, he carried our team offensively last year. He had a good supporting cast to help him do that, but he definitely was a guy that we could rely upon for offense.”
Despite his success so far in the WHL, Boychuk needs to continue to improve his ability to fight through traffic to have an impact at the World Juniors and ultimately to progress to the NHL.
“I think that’s going to be the key from here on in for Zach,” Dyck said. “The key for any of those smaller guys to play at that level and do it effectively, they have to be able to get to the net. Teams are so good defensively now that you can’t do it from the perimeter; you’ve got to pay a price to get to the net. For Zach, he’s had to do that as a 16- and 17-year-old and now he’s getting more attention and it’s getting tougher. That’s obviously going to be the key to his success.”