CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - The transition from junior to professional hockey isn't easy.
For Dryden Hunt, moving from the Western Hockey League to the American Hockey League meant tougher competition, fewer shots and lower point totals. After scoring a league-high 58 goals during his final season with WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors, the 6-foot, 201-pound left winger managed to score just 13 goals and 31 points in 70 games during his first season with the AHL's Springfield Thunderbirds in 2016-17.
"It was something I struggled with for sure," said Hunt, an undrafted free agent who signed an entry-level contract with the Florida Panthers in March of 2016. "You go from junior where you're getting five or six chances a game to suddenly having only one or two. You've got to make the most of it. It was tough. The first half of the year was very tough. You go from getting points every game to every five, six, seven games. Yeah, it was tough, but we had great coaches and guys [in Springfield] to help with me the process."
With an elite shot and knack for finding the back of the net, Hunt is one of the more offensively gifted talents in Florida's prospect pool. At this summer's development camp at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs, the 21-year-old forward received ample praise from both coaches and goaltending prospects for the accuracy and power he displayed on the ice.
"I'd like to say my shots been there for a while," Hunt said. "I'd like to work on my foot speed and kind of making the most of the little chances I get every game."
Although his professional career didn't necessarily get off to the hot start that he had hoped for, Hunt is beaming with confidence and eager to get back on the ice after a strong finish with the Thunderbirds in which he tallied 17 points over the club's final 24 games while playing on Springfield's top line.
"Overall, I think it was a success," Hunt said of his first season as a pro. "It took me a while to transition to the pro-level speed, the quickness of the game. We've got great coaches [in Springfield] and good older guys. It took a little longer than I would have liked to get used to it, but I think in that last couple months I really found my game."
Hunt expects to compete for a spot on the Panthers in training camp.
"You like to think there are doors open," he said. "You always like to think that you're ready to take that next step, but you've just got to keep working at it every day... For me, it's just about getting my foot speed up and keeping work every day. If I get the opportunity, I'll make the most of it."
DOWNING THE D-CAMP VETERAN
Michael Downing certainly knows his way around the Panthers IceDen.
At 22, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound defenseman has attended a total of five development camps since being selected in the fourth round (97th overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft by the Panthers - a fact he's often reminded about while sharing a locker room with droves of 18 and 19 year olds.
"This is my fifth camp," said Downing, chuckling. "It's been five years. Last year was my first year pro. I learned a lot of things, both physically and mentally. It's a grind of my season. Looking at a lot of the young guys around here, I see a lot of myself back when I was here for my first d-camp. It's cool to see."
After patrolling the blue line for three seasons at the University of Michigan, Downing finally made his long-awaited the jump to the AHL this past season, recording 13 points (2-11-13) in 67 games for the Thunderbirds.
"I had a good year," said Downing, who signed an entry-level contract with the Panthers in March of 2016. "Coming from college, it's such a grind [in the AHL]. Instead of the 35-40 games you play in college, you're already at 40 by Christmas in the pros. But it was good. It was a good experience to be in Springfield. I learned a lot."
In three seasons at Michigan (2013-16), Downing recorded 54 points (11-43-54) and 202 penalty minutes in 105 games. After arriving to Springfield, however, the big, physical rearguard quickly learned that simply being bigger and stronger than his opponents would no longer be enough.
"It's a lot different," Downing said of his transition to the AHL. "A lot of people say it's not, but I thought it was, especially in the American League. A lot of guys are out there busting their tails trying to make the big club, so they hit and finish every check. There's a lot more skill and a faster pace. Coming from college, it was a lot different."
After watching fellow Springfield defensemen MacKenzie Weegar and Ian McCoshen each earn call-ups to the Panthers late last season, Downing hopes to make his NHL debut sooner rather than later.
"There's going to be four of five guys trying to take those spots," said Downing, who played a big role in Springfield's top-10 defense last season. "It's going to be a good summer and I'm looking forward to training camp."