|Mike Hoffman, who got his first taste of NHL action against the Carolina Hurricanes last December, has his eyes on landing full-time employment with the Ottawa Senators (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images).
The goal, Mike Hoffman will tell you, couldn't be more clearly in sight.
"I think I'm right there," the Ottawa Senators forward prospect says when asked how close he is to achieving his National Hockey League dream. "Once training camp comes around (in September), time will just tell."
Hoffman speaks with a confidence borne not only by a season in which he topped the Binghamton Senators in scoring (48 points) and ranked second in goals (21), but by the taste of NHL action he got when he made his big league debut in a Dec. 23 road matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes.
By season's end, the Senators also counted the 22-year-old native of Kitchener, Ont., among their "Black Aces," the reserves that NHL teams keep on hand as potential injury fill-ins or additions to the lineup during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"If you don't have confidence playing hockey, you're not going to play up to your potential," said Hoffman, who showed plenty of it during the Senators' recent summer development camp at the Bell Sensplex. "Confidence is a huge part of the game and if you have it, that helps you out that much more."
Not that it was always that easy for Hoffman, who notched 98 goals in his final two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — he earned most valuable player honours in 2009-10 with the Saint John Sea Dogs — but faced a tough adjustment in his first year of pro hockey. The 5-11, 175-pound winger spent part of the 2010-11 campaign with the Elmira Jackals of the East Coast Hockey League but by season's end, played a key role in the B-Sens' drive to the American Hockey League's Calder Cup crown.
"He is a guy who, after he came out of the Quebec league, had to make the adjustment to the AHL," said Randy Lee, the Senators' director of hockey operations and player development. "He did the adjustment, did well in the playoffs, had a limited role but built on that role. He had a pretty good year last year, got the game up (in the NHL) and did well against Carolina."
Hoffman's growth in the last year has made a definite impression on Senators hockey management, most specifically general manager Bryan Murray and head coach Paul MacLean.
"What's attractive about him is that he can score, he's got a great shot, he sees the ice pretty well and he's got really, really good speed," said Lee. "And he's not afraid — he played with an edge. In his exit meeting after playing with the Black Aces, I think he made an impression on both Bryan and Paul with his real seriousness, that he's committed to being a pro and wants to play for the Senators sooner rather than later.
"It was a change in his work ethic (that made the difference). Rather than thinking he was entitled to play, he realized that he had to work toward it and I think he did that. He's shown that he's willing to work hard and he showed with conviction that 'I want to be a pro player and I want to help this team win.' That made a real impression on those guys."
And Hoffman knows the work isn't close to being done yet.
"You always want to get better, you always want to work on things," said Hoffman, a fifth-round pick (130th overall) by the Senators in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. "You're never going to be perfect so if you can do that, you help yourself out a lot ... I thought last year's training camp was pretty good. I thought I played pretty well. Then I got a game (against Carolina) and I thought I fit in pretty good.
"I've just got to work hard (this summer) and just get bigger and stronger."
Hoffman's offensive game also is transforming to adapt to the more physical style of the AHL, which should also make a difference in taking the next step.
"He is willing to stick his nose in there and that's what he's got to do," said Lee. "Sometimes, you have guys with good speed who become perimeter players just because they're able to (do that) with their speed. He's got to learn that's one of his threats, to go wide with speed, but other times he's got to drive and get in the dirty areas.
"He can finish in tight and he's got a great release. He's got that flexibility to play the point on the power play, which he does on a big-time basis down (in Binghamton). He's got a great one-timer, he moves the puck really well and he can move laterally pretty well. And he's not a real detriment defending if he gets caught out there. He can skate well enough to defend."