SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The future of the NHL was on display at War Memorial Arena in Syracuse for the AHL All-Star Classic, and some players came into the weekend already with a taste of what it's like to play in the NHL.
San Diego Gulls forward Nick Ritchie, Utica Comets forward Hunter Shinkaruk, and St. John's Ice Caps forward Michael McCarron have all had different experiences in the NHL this season, but have excelled in the American Hockey League.
Ritchie played 11 games with the Anaheim Ducks between Nov. 16 and Dec. 6, but in 30 games with the Gulls he's scored 15 goals and 26 points. Ritchie, the 10th pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, has learned a lot in his first season as a professional, but he knows it will take more for him to become an everyday NHL player.
"There is a step there," Ritchie said. "It's good to play here in the American League; it's a really good league. You've just got to round out your game and get back to the NHL as fast as possible. Obviously the NHL game is faster, so that's the stuff you're working on down here."
Ritchie was part of the Western Conference team that defeated the Eastern Conference at the AHL All-Star Skills Competition 19-14 on Sunday. Ritchie reached 99.2 miles per hour in the Hardest Shot competition and did not score in the breakaway relay. Having a hard slap shot is just one of Ritchie's tools he's using to score goals in the AHL, but he realizes rounding out his game is the way back to the NHL.
"I had a chance to play some games this year and got to see some of those guys and how they practice and how they play," Ritchie said. "I think I've [taken] a little bit from that and they all do unique things. I think all the really good players in that League do one or two things really well that makes them who they are. I think if I find out that little part of my game then I'll be OK."
For McCarron and Shinkaruk, their experience in the NHL was a bit shorter. McCarron played in two games for the Montreal Canadiens and Shinkaruk played in one game for the Vancouver Canucks, but their AHL experiences are much different.
McCarron is in his first season as a professional after he played for the London Knights and Oshawa Generals in the Ontario Hockey League last season. McCarron was taken 25th by the Canadiens in 2013 and has 13 goals and 28 points in 43 games for the Ice Caps this season. Adjusting to the pro game has had its ups and downs for the 6-foot-6, 231-pound forward.
"It's my first year pro and it's a learning experience," McCarron said. "I got off to a hot start and they gave me every chance in the world to succeed and I took advantage of that. It is a learning experience, but at the same time, there are things I need to learn and the Montreal Canadiens are just telling me I need to get faster and just evolve in my game and be quicker and just learn the pro-style game a bit more. They want me to develop a bit longer and we'll see where it takes me."
Shinkaruk is in his second pro season with the Comets. He had 31 points in 74 games last season, and has 17 goals and 32 points in 37 games this season in Utica. Shinkaruk made his NHL debut for the Canucks on Nov. 16 against the Canadiens. Making it back to the NHL and staying there means staying on the path he's on this season in the AHL.
"I can work on every single area of my game," Shinkaruk said. "Obviously being an offensive guy, the [defensive] zone is something that doesn't come too natural for us. I think that's something I can always work on, but at the end of the day I've just got to keep playing my game; have confidence in what I do, and I feel if I do that things will work out."
The AHL is a developmental league for players like Ritchie, McCarron and Shinkaruk, but the opportunities it provided them to improve their games and eventually become everyday NHL players is invaluable at their age. That means keeping hope alive for making it in the NHL.
"It's pretty crazy," Shinkaruk said. "Things go by really quick, but that's what we've dreamed of. Obviously we all dream of playing in the NHL, but these are all things that are dreams of ours; to play in all-star games, to have success, to play in the NHL. It's a whirlwind, but at the end of the day, I mean I'm pretty grateful that this has happened to me so far. I've just got to keep working and keep having fun."