Ask Zach Boychuk what’s going well for him this season, and you’re likely to get a handful of answers.
In a development that can be traced from anything to a new position to a regular regiment of hearty breakfasts, the 23-year-old forward is showing a kind of consistency that had eluded him for most of his three previous seasons as a professional. He’s recorded a point in all but three of the team’s 12 games and is among the league leaders, if not the leader, in several offensive categories.
Boychuk has been able to identify a number of factors contributing to his hot start, a list that seemingly grows by the day. First, there was the long summer of training that came with missing the playoffs, something that hadn’t happened to him in five years, which allowed him to build more strength. Then there was a more serious approach to each day at the rink that came with the reality of having to sign a new contract in July.
A few of his teammates have helped with the latter, as he rooms with captain Brett Sutter on the road and fellow 2008 draft pick Zac Dalpe at home in Charlotte.
“Dalpe has always been a businesslike guy with getting to the rink early every day and working hard,” said Boychuk. “He even makes me breakfast every morning. He cooks my eggs, pours my juice and butters my toast. It’s been unbelievable.”
Nutritional benefits aside, Boychuk’s list of positives this season also include a more permanent home on the left wing, which he feels helps his speed when breaking the puck out of his zone, and the team’s new style of play designed by Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller. Under that system, Boychuk and the rest of the team’s offensive players have flourished in a way they didn’t last season, helping the team rank third in the AHL with an average of nearly four goals per game.
“We’re very aggressive now, and that’s kind of more my style,” said Boychuk. “I like to use my speed and go at them.”
In Boychuk’s view, all of that has helped him get to where he was on Friday, when he ranked third in AHL goals (8), tied for fourth in points (12), tied for first in power-play goals (4) and points (8) and first in game-winning goals (4).
“I can’t really pick one thing out,” he acknowledged, “It’s kind of been a combination of things.”
If Boychuk’s reasoning sounds complex, observations of his play made by coaches and management will come off as being quite simple.
“He’s skating,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “He’s moving his legs and not standing around and watching. Even in games where he’s not scoring, his skating creates a lot of chances, and when a guy like him gets chances, good things happen.”
“He’s skating a lot better,” echoed Ron Francis, the Hurricanes’ vice president of hockey operations who was in town to watch the Checkers play. “Last year he was a lot more stationary and now he’s using more of his best assets, one of which is his speed. Combine that with his shot and you get goals like the one he scored (on Thursday) where he’s got enough speed on the partial breakaway to get his shot off and score the winner.”
At his current pace, Boychuk, against more difficult competition than in previous AHL seasons due to the NHL lockout, would end up with an even 76 points in 76 games - a mark that would eclipse his career high set two seasons ago. He was scoring at a similar clip back then but missed a handful of games while on NHL recall with Carolina.
Playing with the Hurricanes, something he’s done 72 times without landing a permanent spot, may not be an option for the time being. However, if he were to continue to do what he’s doing, he’d be an excellent position to make that transition if and when the time does come this season.
After all, the right people have already taken notice.
“This is a guy we thought a lot of in drafting him as high as we did in the first round, and we still continue to think a lot of him,” said Francis. “We’re glad to see him taking the steps that he’s taking this year, and it seems like he’s taken that next step up to the next level.”