Jayce Hawryluk finally got a taste of the NHL this season.
A second-round pick (32nd overall) in the 2014 NHL Draft, the 23-year-old winger had spent 142 games fighting through injuries and fine-tuning his game over parts of three seasons down in the minors before finally earning his long-awaited call-up to the Florida Panthers on Dec. 15.
"I'm coming here to bring energy, offense, sparks, to be an agitator," Hawryluk said shortly after getting his call to South Florida. "I'm that type of player. I feel confident with the puck this year. I'm just looking forward to bringing that here and getting the first game going. I'm ready to go."
Hawryluk showed off some of those sparks in his first taste of NHL action.
Joining the Panthers lineup for the first time during a 4-3 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 15 at BB&T Center, the fiery 5-foot-11, 185-pound forward racked up four hits - including a game-high three in the first period alone -- and two shots on goal in 5:55 of ice time.
"It's a special night," Hawryluk said after his debut "Happy to get the win. Just looking forward to the road ahead and getting many more wins with the team… I'll never forget [this game]."
Prior to his promotion, Hawryluk was already off to a great start with Florida's AHL affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds, leading the team with 28 points (seven goals, 21 assists) in 25 games.
When asked about his development this season, he pointed to the leadership that the Panthers brought into Springfield, specifically the guidance he received from veteran journeyman Harry Zolnierczyk, who he credited with being both "a big key to my success" and "helping me grow."
Hawryluk also said that he narrowed his focus, worrying more about wins than personal points.
"It was just about winning hockey games," he said. "Last year in Springfield we didn't have a good season and we weren't happy with it. Coming into this season, it was all about winning hockey games. With team success comes personal success. That was just my main focus. I just wanted to help our team win. Points aren't always a reflection of how guys are playing."
In the end, Hawryluk spent 42 games with the Panthers, returning to the AHL only for brief stints around the All-Star break and at the end of the season to get in some added ice time. Averaging 9:26 of ice time per game during his first tour of the NHL, he tallied seven goals and five assists.
Heading into next season, Hawryluk hopes to continue building upon his positive rookie year.
"It's definitely been quite the journey so far me," Hawryluk said shortly after his call-up. "I'm obviously still fairly young, but it definitely feels like it's been a long road. The AHL is an unbelievable league. I think it gets overlooked sometimes. With some of the players and how the schedule's formatted, it's a tough league to play in.
"It's definitely helped me grow as a player and as a person, for sure. I'm thankful for that. I had couple injuries, but obviously I've had the best staff helping me get back on track. This summer was a big one for me. I put a lot of hard work and dedication in to getting better on and off the ice. It's nice to feel like it's finally sort of starting to pay off."
Hawryluk was at his best when he played around the net.
Of the seven goals he scored this season, two were credited as tip-ins, which was tied for the fifth-most on the Panthers. He also deflected three shots on goal, with one ending up in the net.
Earning second-star honors, Hawryluk notched two goals and an assist for the first three-point outing of his career in a 7-5 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena on March 25.
After lighting the lamp in the first period, Hawryluk tickled the twine once again late in the third. Firing his first shot wide of the net, he stayed with the play and collected his own rebound off the end boards, hammering home the carom to cut Florida's deficit to 7-5 with 2:24 left in regulation.
Video: FLA@TOR: Hawryluk buries own rebound for second goal
Playing on the second line and seeing 14:31 of ice time - his second-highest total of the season - Hawryluk also chipped in three hits, two blocked shots, three shots on goal and one takeaway.
"I'm playing with two guys that can find me in areas that, if I get myself to, I'm going to have a pretty good opportunity to score," Hawryluk said of his approach after the game. "I've just got to get to those dirty areas, get behind their defense."
GOAL OF THE YEAR
It only took five games for Hawryluk to notch the first NHL goal.
With the Panthers trailing the Chicago Blackhawks 1-0 early in the first period of a matchup at United Center on Dec. 23, Hawryluk deftly maneuvered around a defenseman before beating goaltender Cam Ward to a loose puck and sending it into the open net to make it 1-1 at 16:21.
Hawryluk went on to add another goal in second period, helping the Panthers to a 6-3 win.
Video: FLA@CHI: Hawryluk gets around Ward for first NHL goal
"I'm always hungry. I always want to score and help my team win," Hawryluk said after the game. "We played hard and had a successful road trip."