RALEIGH, N.C. – As the Carolina Hurricanes begin training camp on Thursday with physicals and team photo sessions, it will be surprising if forward Zach Boychuk does not finish near the top of the testing protocols at the end of the day.
He returned to Raleigh during the last week of August and attended most, if not all, informal skates that various combinations of players held at Raleigh Center Ice (RCI), the team’s practice facility, to prepare for the opening day of camp.
He looked to be in the same, if not better shape, on and off the ice, than last year.
Once again he’s prepared himself to try to earn a full-time roster spot in the National Hockey League (NHL).
His offseason training included skating and working out with the likes of Jordan Eberle and Mike Green at Crash Conditioning in Calgary, Alberta, and also included time spent in Kelowna, British Columbia where he trained with many other established and notable NHL veterans.
For much of August he was putting pucks towards goaltenders Cary Price and James Reimer while trying to work with and through defensemen like Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Cody Franson, and Josh Gorges.
“I’ve been training hard,” Boychuk said.
“I’ve lost a little bit of weight. I was about 200 pounds when I got home at the end of the year last year, so I’m down to about 185, 186 right now – a lot leaner, a lot more muscle – probably the best shape that I’ve been in my life so far.”
Boychuk has said in the past that he’ll assume whatever role he needs to in order to play in the NHL – to be a team player and to do what’s asked of him.
That’s what he wants – just to make it – but that may not be the right spot for him.
His career has followed a winding path that has seen him play 296 games in the American Hockey League (AHL) while making appearance in 96 career NHL games over six seasons.
He’s posted 117 goals in the minors while racking up only nine in the NHL.
He’s had chances to play with top-line players in not only Carolina, and for a short while during the 2012-2013 season when he bounced along the waiver wire to do the same with Pittsburgh and Nashville.
Coming off an award-winning 2013-2014 season in the AHL as the overall top goal scorer, Boychuk’s Willie Marshall Award shows that he possesses the ability to put the puck in the net at the professional level.
That’s the reason he was selected first by Carolina (14th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry draft – to score goals.
Some may scoff at the notion that it’s just the AHL, but being the league’s top goal scorer, is a feat that requires skill and talent.
In earning the award, Boychuk became the first in the Hurricanes organization to earn the honor.
However, what’s held him back from making Carolina’s roster?
Boychuk believes he’s finally confronted the issue and looks to see how it translates for him heading into this season.
“I think the biggest thing is not thinkin’ too much out there,” he said.
“Even when you have success at the AHL level, you think it’s gonna’ translate into the NHL level, but it’s intimidating. That’s the thing I’ve had to get over the last four or five years. I’ve played scared in the NHL. Now that I know I can get over that, it’s just a confidence and a time when I feel like I can play in the NHL.”
Aside from playing with a scared attitude, critics have questioned whether Boychuk’s size has prevented him from playing regularly with the Hurricanes.
That could be true, but size is only meaningful in the eye of the evaluator.
If former coach Kirk Muller wasn’t willing to allow a smaller forward with hands like Boychuk, who stands at five-foot-10-inches tall, to play like he’s supposed to and in the right position, then you can’t bring out the best of what he has to offer.
How new head coach Bill Peters and his staff will evaluate Boychuk’s abilities will determine if the 25-year old gets to follow a different path this season – into the NHL.
There is a silver lining that could bear a glimmer of hope for Boychuk, considering the timing of coming off his best scoring season in addition to being in as good a shape as he is.
Since 2003, when the Marshall award was first given out, Boychuk, the 12th recipient, trails behind two previous years’ winners before him, Tyler Johnson (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Cory Conacher (New York Islanders), and 12-year NHL veteran Mike Cammalleri (New Jersey Devils), the second player to earn the honor back in 2005.
Obviously all were top scorers in the AHL, but coincidentally enough, all three players stand one to two inches shorter than Boychuk.
Additionally, all three earned full-time playing opportunities in the NHL the season following their top AHL goal-scoring seasons.
Will that mean anything for Boychuk when he suits up and hits the ice alongside and against 50 other players at camp?
Maybe, maybe not – time will tell.
For now, what he does possesses, is the drive to carry the momentum of his best professional scoring season knowing how he must play – confident.
It’s what’s made him successful in the AHL, and now he just has to translate that to a level higher.
“I played some good games last year and that’s my mindset – intensity and not being scared of the NHL,” Boychuk concluded.
“There’s a lot of good players and I feel like I’m close, but when I play timid and play too scared to make a mistake, that’s kind of what happens.”
Don’t be surprised if he scores more goals than he has before during the preseason.
Then you’ll know he’s not playing scared in the NHL.