Everything is a bit different this season for Vancouver Canucks prospect Hunter Shinkaruk as he makes the transition to his first season of pro hockey with the Utica Comets.
Shinkaruk, the Canucks first round, 24th overall, pick in 2013, joins the Comets after four seasons in the WHL with the Medicine Hat Tigers where he was the star. He scored 235 points (105-130-235) in 211 games, played in an All-Star Game and even had his photo on the front of a cereal box.
But now things are different. He is playing against men much older than him, and much more experienced. At times, coming from being a star in one league, to a rookie developing his game in another, things can get tough.
“When I was 17, 18 and 19 years old in junior I guess I was one of the better players on the team and I played a lot on the power-play, played on the penalty kill and every game played upwards of 20 minutes,” said Shinkaruk, who has eight points (4-4-8) in 19 games this season. “Going from that for three years to coming to a team where there are a lot of older players and you don’t play as much has been one of the biggest transitions, but it has been good. I am learning a lot about the whole game and the coaching staff here has been awesome in teaching me new things every day, which is going to help me be one of the better players in the NHL and at the end of the day, that’s my goal.”
Comets head coach Travis Green understands the developmental process some players need. He was drafted almost identically to Shinkaruk, selected 23rd overall by the New York Islanders in 1989 after scoring 51 goals and 102 points that season with Spokane in the WHL. Like Shinkaruk, he played one more season of junior, even finishing up his career with Medicine Hat. He then spent two full seasons in the AHL before he got a sniff of the NHL. He gets how frustrating it can be.
“You worry about young guys that aren’t having success offensively, especially someone who is used to it, you worry about how they will react,” said Green. “I am happy with how he has done. I think he has continued to develop.
“He is a pretty mature kid and I don’t want him to dwell on goals. I want him to dwell on getting himself into areas where he can have success, not just offensively, but defensively as well. You can score 30-35 goals in this league and not play in the NHL because you’re not good in all the other areas.”
But Green says not to just look at the goal totals to see how Shinkaruk’s game is progressing.
“I know people look at his numbers and think he should have a lot more points,” said Green. “It’s a hard league to score in, a hard league to get points in and it’s even harder when you’re a 19-year-old entering the league. I really like his game; I think he is playing well. He is working extremely hard and competing every day, which I like.
“He is playing extremely hard every shift and I think he has been snake-bitten a little bit. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had a lot more goals at this point, which shows you that his goal totals aren’t indicative of how well he is playing the game.”
In contrast, their playing styles are different. Green was a big, two-way forward. Shinkaruk is an offensively gifted player with lightning fast hands. But Green did score a few in his day, including a career-high 25 goals and 70 points during the 1995-1996 season.
“I have learned a lot from him,” said Shinkaruk. “He was a pretty productive and reliable NHL player for a lot of years. There are little things in my game that I am learning every day from him, which has been great. Some days he is hard on you, but at the end of the day, that is what you want. I am here to become one of the best players in the NHL and that has been my goal, so if I can take little things from him that are going to help me get to that point, then I am pretty lucky. The coaching staff here are really great resources to learn from.”
Perhaps the biggest adjustment Shinkaruk has had to make this season has been away from the rink. Living on your own, while playing pro hockey can be tough on some teenagers. No more parents or billet families to help you out. But Shinkaruk was prepared. His mother, Patricia, prepped him for this exact moment.
“It’s been a little bit different away from the rink, living on my own, having to pay bills,” said Shinkaruk. “That has been the biggest adjustment for me. In junior I actually lived with my mom as we had a place in Medicine Hat. She made me cook, learn how to do laundry and clean the place. She really made sure that when the time came for me to move out I understood how to do all those things. I am pretty lucky she did that for me, it has made the transition go good.”
Except for one little thing.
“The biggest thing has been remembering to pay my bills on time,” laughed Shinkaruk. “Every time I get a letter in the mail saying I missed it, I kind of laugh, but everyone goes through that at some point in their life and I am just blessed that I am getting the opportunity to play hockey for a living.”