Hunter Shinkaruk (Lindsay A. Mogle/Utica Comets)
Shinkaruk advised to diversify his speed and skill game in order to create more of a role for himself at a higher level.Hunter Shinkaruk could be excused for not setting the AHL ablaze during his first season. Having missed most of his final junior term with a torn labrum, he had a ready-made excuse for making a slow transition to pro. But he wasn’t prepared to indulge that narrative. “To be honest, I don’t really feel like I was too far behind when I went into camp,” Shinkaruk said. “I was fortunate it didn’t really hold me back as much as I thought it would. The initial plot points in Act I of Shinkaruk’s pro career mirror the beginning of his junior years in Medicine Hat. Before ascending to a 49-goal season and the Tigers’ captaincy, the flashy left winger broke his leg prior to entering the WHL and struggled out of the gate. He watched a few games from the press box but quickly caught up, finishing top-five in team scoring and leaping to 91 points the following year.
While he doesn’t excuse himself for producing under half-a-point per game in the AHL, the 20-year-old has found himself with reduced opportunities, playing a supporting role on a powerhouse Utica Comets team. “We have experienced guys who have played in the NHL,” Shinkaruk said. “Understandably, they’re guys they use on the first power play and first penalty kill. But at the same time, ‘Greener’ (Utica coach Travis Green) has been really good in helping me learn the defensive side of hockey and all those things that maybe you didn’t learn in junior.”If Shinkaruk reaches his ceiling, he’ll develop into a Jeff Skinner type – undersized winger with superior edge control and offensive instincts. Despite that potential, Shinkaruk hasn’t convinced some scouts he will be an impact point-getter in the NHL. “I see a kid with skill and quickness – the puck doesn’t slow him down – and I have no issues with his compete level, but he needs to add strength and win battles,” a scout said. “He can be pushed off pucks with ease and also has trouble getting inside. I see more of a future third-line guy than a top-six. Don’t think he has the elite skill to beat guys at the next level, so he is going to have to get stronger and use his speed to be a good two-way player.” Shinkaruk’s elite skating ability and willingness to defend will eventually lead to a spot in the NHL. If he doesn’t develop as the Canucks hope, he’ll still be a useful third-liner who can score 30-plus points and forecheck with vigor. The scout likened Shinkaruk to the Florida Panthers’ Brandon Pirri – a comparison meant to characterize a skilled bottom-six winger. But at the time, Pirri was in the midst of an out-of-left-field surge with 19 in 26 games. And Shinkaruk caught fire at the same time, scoring in five straight games. Prior to that, he was a healthy scratch. That’s the type of hot-and-cold season it’s been. The Calgary native sees himself blossoming into the slick goal-scoring force he was in junior. But before he’s allowed off his leash, he’s been asked to depart from the finesse game. Early on, Shinkaruk was instructed to chip-and-chase – something he doesn’t recall being asked to do in junior. “Five years down the road I’m going to be thankful for all these lessons,” he said. “It’ll allow me to sustain a lot longer of a career in the NHL than it would have been if I was allowed to get away with those fancy moves all the time. But at the same time, that’s my game, and I’ll never cut it out completely because that’s why I play the game.” This feature appears in the June 22 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.