Hunter Shinkaruk has only played one game for the Canucks this season, but he has fans anticipating his return like nerds awaiting the Force Awakens. The reason: he’s the Utica Comets’ leading scorer with 19 points (11g, 8a) through 19 games this year.
Considering Vancouver’s critical need for anyone who will consistently score besides the Sedins, they can’t afford to hold off on him much longer.
After managing 16 goals in his rookie season, Shinkaruk is a different player this year. With two hat tricks so far, he’s become a legitimate AHL sniper. One huge reason for that success is the full summer’s training he put in alongside Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon.
But the 31 points he put up last season are nothing to scoff at.
Consider he was coming off hip labrum surgery the year before. That operation took about six hours and Shinkaruk says he didn’t walk for about a month and a half afterwards.
“For me it was a bit frustrating. I kind of thought at times people forgot what I had to go through,” Shinkaruk said over the phone Monday. There were those who said he wasn’t playing a physical enough game, or he wasn’t as NHL ready as Sven Baertschi who came to Utica after being acquired in a mid-season trade and took on a major role with the team down the stretch.
“There were things that were said that kind of put a fire in my belly that when I came into the summer,” said Shinkaruk. “I really wanted to silence all the people who thought that maybe I wasn’t able to do the things I did in Junior at a pro level.”
Because of that fire, Shinkaruk decided to put in a full off-season with his trainer Andy O’Brien, who also trains Crosby in Halifax during the summers. Working out alongside Crosby and MacKinnon turned out to be an eye-opening experience.
“To be able to see, not just on the ice, but off the ice, how (Crosby) handles himself, how he eats, how he does the things away from the rink no one really thinks about – when I saw him and was around him, those are the things that really separated him from other players I’ve skated with,” said Shinkaruk. “Just the way he prepares.”
“You realize they’re the best in the world but they’re never comfortable and feel good with where they’re at. They’re always working to be better. It was good for me to see that for sure.”
Under O’Brien’s watch with Crosby, MacKinnon, and others, Shinkaruk trained six days a week for two full months. The experience has certainly changed some ways he approaches the game.
“Just little things that I see that I put into my daily routine – those are things that are for me to know that have been helping me out this year,” he said.
With Utica choosing to move on from veterans Cal O’Reilly, Brandon Defazio, Cory Conacher and Dustin Jeffrey in the past half year, the door opened up for Shinkaruk to take on a larger role with the team.
“I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to be one of the best players, if not the best player on the ice every night, and it’s been working out,” he said. “Definitely the things I did in the off-season have helped me.”
Shinkaruk played his first NHL game against Montreal in the middle of November. You could see his confidence growing as the game wore on.
“It was probably about the second period – I was sitting on the bench and I felt pretty good, and I told myself it’s just hockey. It’s the same as it was in Peewee and in the WHL and the AHL. I’ve just got to play my game and I feel like things will work out.”
While he said playing a game in the NHL was a dream come true and a great experience, he quickly adds that he’s not at all satisfied.
“At the end of the day it’s not my dream or my goal to just play one game in the NHL,” he explained. “I want to be one of the top players in that league one day.”
Canucks’ GM Benning believes Shinkaruk is the kind of player who loves to be around the net and score goals, and says he expected this success from Shinkaruk.
“At the start of the year we had him pencilled in for 25-30 goals and to be a leader of that team down there,” Benning said on the radio last week. “He’s working on the other parts of his game he knows he needs to improve to stay in the NHL full-time, so he’s on the right track.”
Shinkaruk agrees: “Getting a little taste of it was definitely nice, and now it’s time for me to keep working and getting better and making sure that I’m going to stay there.”
What he’s done so far in the AHL should help make Benning’s decision to send Jake Virtanen to the World Juniors easier. Shinkaruk’s ready to return to prove he should stick around.