After undergoing wrist surgery in July, little was expected from Zach Boychuk
as he entered his first Hurricanes training camp only two months later. Having not been cleared to practice, he was there mainly to soak up the experience.
As it turns out, Boychuk heals as fast as he skates. Not only was the team’s first-round pick in 2008 able to take the ice in practices, much earlier than the doctors’ initial prognosis, he was impressive enough in the process to earn an NHL contract and a look in two regular-season games before eventually returning to his junior team.
It’s rare for a player to get an opportunity of that magnitude so soon after being drafted, especially as his injury prevented him from suiting up in a single exhibition game. Making the impression he did based on practices alone is no small feat, but such are the skills that Boychuk possesses.
“It was remarkable what he was able to do in joining camp towards the tail end of things and then jump into games, which was basically unheard of,” said Jason Karmanos, the Hurricanes’ vice president and assistant general manager. “He’s an exciting player, and that’s the best way to describe Zach. He’s one of those guys that can pick people out of their seats.”
Boychuk, chosen 14th overall at the draft, turned heads at camp with his skating, his infectious energy level and the quick release on his shot – freshly-healed wrist injury and all. Even among established NHL players, his talent clearly stood out.
“There’s things that he was doing in practice after having the surgery that guys can’t do in their whole careers,” General Manager Jim Rutherford said back in September.
Since then, Boychuk has gone on to have a successful season with Lethbridge of the Western Hockey League, scoring 57 points (28g, 29a) in 43 regular season games. He also racked up seven points (4g, 3a) in helping Canada win gold at the World Junior Championship and currently ranks second in WHL playoff scoring with 10 points (7g, 3a) through the first round.
With those numbers, along with a unique set of circumstances that would allow him to play in the American Hockey League (if not the NHL) next season, it appears that Boychuk’s professional career is just around the corner.
“I would think that he’ll be given an opportunity to make the NHL roster as a young player,” said Tony MacDonald, the Hurricanes’ director of amateur scouting. “If he has to go to the American league to develop further and to learn how to play the program, that’s certainly a possibility also, but coming in I think he’ll be given every opportunity to prove that he belongs and can start in the NHL.”
Although he admittedly doesn’t like to compare prospects with established NHL players, MacDonald said that there is something awfully familiar about the way Boychuk plays the game.
“There’s a lot of Ray Whitney’s game there,” he said. “They’ve both got great vision, hockey sense and the ability to find people open, and can also unload with that quick release and score goals. There are some striking similarities.”
They don’t end there. The Hurricanes list both Boychuk and Whitney at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, which is clearly below the league average. The Canes knew that when they drafted Boychuk, but still felt he had the other qualities necessary to excel.
“When you’re considering taking a player that’s not a big player, the player needs to fit certain criteria,” said Karmanos. “He needs to have the speed necessary to get away from the bigger players and he needs to have that exceptional hockey sense and skill level. Zach has those things.”
It doesn’t hurt that Boychuk takes his conditioning very seriously, which is often a sore spot for young players. Pound-for-pound, few players are as physically strong, which should help him adapt to the next level.
“You can’t have an undersized team, but you can certainly have undersized players when they’re as strong and as fit as someone like Zach is,” said Karmanos. “Pete Friesen [the team’s head trainer] has compared his strength to that of a gymnast in that he’s kind of strong all over. He’s an extremely athletic individual.”
“I think that goes along with being a player of lesser physical stature where you can’t rely on 6’4” and 210 to get you by,” said MacDonald. “Things like that go a long way in helping a kid, because when you’ve demonstrated that you’re prepared to do the work necessary to be ready to compete, that says a lot for a player.
Additionally, Boychuk has shown a considerable degree of toughness over the last year. In addition to coming back from his wrist fracture, he suffered an ankle injury prior to the semifinals of the World Junior tournament. Although went scoreless in Canada’s last two games and was clearly hurting, he didn’t miss a game. That couldn’t have been easy, as he didn’t get back to 100 percent effectiveness for Lethbridge until months later.
“That’s a testament to his character and an indication of the kind of player he is,” said MacDonald.
Had Lethbridge come up short in its recent seven-game series against Saskatoon, Boychuk could have joined the Canes’ AHL affiliate for the last few games of the regular season. Instead, he’ll continue to help lead his team towards the Memorial Cup before beginning his pro career next season.
When that happens, it will be an important step that both Boychuk and the Hurricanes are looking forward to.
“Zach’s got to prove himself at the NHL level yet, and we certainly believe that he will,” said MacDonald. “Everything that he’s done to this point indicates that he should be a very good player for us for a long time.”