PENTICTON, B.C. – Hunter Shinkaruk has a second chance to make a first impression.
The 19-year-old left-winger was selected by the Vancouver Canucks 24th overall at the 2013 draft when Mike Gillis was the team’s general manager and John Tortorella was its head coach.
Shinkaruk was among the final cuts at training camp last season before being returned to the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers, where he suffered a hip injury that eventually ended his year.
Now back healthy, and with both Gillis and Tortorella gone after Vancouver’s disastrous 2013-14 season, Shinkaruk has an opportunity to start fresh in the organization that drafted him.
“With so many new people in the upper management and the coaching staff you’ve got to come in and show them what you’re all about,” said Shinkaruk. “Last year’s camp is basically out the window. It doesn’t matter too much. I’ve got to come in and play my game and let them know what kind of player I am.
“First impression is pretty huge in any profession so I’ve just got to go out there and do my best.”
Shinkaruk is among the players taking part in the Canucks’ four-team rookie tournament in Penticton that also includes prospects from the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets.
Canucks GM Jim Benning and head coach Willie Desjardins will have lots to mull over, including a number of players like Shinkaruk who they had no part in drafting.
“I think you’ve just got to come in and play your game,” said the outgoing Shinkaruk. “Obviously we all have an opportunity to catch the GM and coach’s eye, and that’s what you’ve got to do. We’ve got to go out there, have fun, but most of all, play our game. I’m sure if I do that everything will work out well.”
Shinkaruk played just 18 games last season for the Tigers before undergoing surgery on his hip after being cut from Canada’s world junior hockey camp, but in his 2013 draft year the five-foot-10, 185-pound Calgary native amassed 37 goals and 49 assists in 64 games.
“Obviously last year was a pretty emotional year,” said Shinkaruk. “I went through a lot. It feels really good to be back on the ice and know my hip’s 100 per cent.”
Among the other players under the microscope at the rookie tournament who should be at the Canucks’ training camp when it gets underway on Thursday are centre Bo Horvat and right-winger Nicklas Jensen.
Horvat was selected ninth overall in 2013 with the pick the team received in the trade with the New Jersey Devils for goaltender Cory Schneider, and like Shinkaruk, he knows he’s starting from scratch.
“I’m just playing my game, playing a good two-way game and making a good first impression on the new (coaches),” said 19-year-old from Rodney, Ont. “This is the first time some of them have seen some of us play and this tournament is a good opportunity to show our stuff and show them why we deserve to be here.”
Travis Green coaches the Utica Comets, Vancouver’s AHL affiliate, and is in charge of the Canucks’ rookie team. The former NHLer has been impressed with Horvat, who had 30 goals and 44 assists in 54 games with the OHL’s London Knights in a 2013-14 campaign that included a spot on Canada’s world junior team.
“He’s a real good player, without a doubt. He does a lot of good things that go unnoticed,” said Green, who coached against Horvat when he was behind the bench of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks at the 2013 Memorial Cup. “He’s a guy that you know is going to play the right way. He doesn’t cheat to make offence. He just plays a good 200-foot game. I really like him as a player.”
It’s possible Shinkaruk could be sent to the AHL if he doesn’t make the Canucks, but it’s either the NHL or back to junior for Horvat, who might get a nine-game tryout with Vancouver to start the season before his entry-level deal kicks in.
“For me I just don’t want to make things too cute—just play my game, play the way I got noticed in the first place,” he said. “I can’t play out of my comfort zone. I’ve got to play the way that got me here.”
The six-foot, 206-pound Horvat gets extra attention from fans and media because of the goalie controversy that precipitated the draft-day trade that brought him to Vancouver, but he said it’s something that hasn’t really crossed his mind much recently.
“I’m sure it’s going to be brought up throughout my whole career, being part of the Schneider trade,” said Horvat. “I try not to think about it too much. He’s a goaltender, I’m a player.”
Another Vancouver prospect with legitimate NHL aspirations this season at the rookie tournament is left-winger Niklas Jensen. He split time between the Comets and Canucks last season, registering three goals and three assists in 17 NHL games. The 29th overall selection at the 2011 draft, Jensen is at his third rookie tournament—which could be viewed as a slight—but instead he’s embracing the opportunity.
“You’ve got to show up and prove that you want to be here every night,” said the 21-year-old from Herning, Denmark. “I had a good little run last year but I kind of have to forget about that and start all over and work as hard as you can when you get out there and prove that you want to earn a spot.”
Like any player looking to make an NHL roster, Jensen know it’s a numbers game, with maybe one forward spot open on the Canucks after a number of new faces were brought in up front to compete for jobs.
“If you do as well as they want you to do they’ll give you a chance,” said Jensen, who has good size at six foot two and 208 pounds. “That’s what we’re all here for, to take that opportunity.
“We’re all fighting for maybe one spot, if (that).”
Green said it’s not uncommon for a player to take longer to develop in the professional ranks, as appears to be the case with Jensen.
“It’s a big jump for guys to the NHL at 19, 20, 21,” said Green. “Sometimes it takes being 22, 23 years old when you’re ready to play there full time. It’s definitely not make or break time for him.”
For his part, Shinkaruk is just soaking up the experience, knowing that he’s healthy and has a real chance to influence his immediate future in front of a new coach and GM.
“It’s just up to us and how well we play and how hard we come in. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said. “If someone told me four years ago I’d be trying out for an NHL team and it’s up to the way I play, I would have taken that and smiled.
“It’s a pretty cool chance that I have and I’m just trying to make the best of it.”
Note: Jake Virtanen, the sixth overall pick in June, is skating with the Canucks’ prospects but has not been cleared for contact after undergoing shoulder surgery in the spring.