Carolina Hurricanes: What Went Wrong and What's Ahead for Zach Boychuk
When the Carolina Hurricanes took to the podium for the 14th pick of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, they knew the immense importance of the decision at hand.
They had studied the remaining draft board—one that included such talented youngsters as Erik Karlsson, Luca Sbisa, Michael Del Zotto and Jordan Eberle—and had weighed the pros and cons of each.
They had also taken an especially close look at a 5'9", 175-pound center from Alberta by the name of Zach Boychuk, and had determined that his hockey senses and playmaking abilities would be enough to overcome his small frame.
And so, on the balmy Ottawa night of June 20, 2008, they picked Boychuk to be the face of the Hurricanes' summer draft class and the team's next young star prospect.
GM Jim Rutherford & Co. had no way of knowing at the time that Boychuk would actually never overcome his size concerns, that Boychuk would struggle with work ethic and consistency for years to come and that the choice to take the risk on Boychuk would still haunt the team half a decade later.
All they saw was a shifty, dynamically-gifted forward billed as "an all-around offensive player" and "a treat to watch" by Central Scouting.
That lovely June evening, they surely saw flashes of Pavel Datsyuk and Martin St. Louis in the 18-year-old scorer and envisioned him tearing up future opposing defenses while wearing a red and white sweater.
One thousand, eight hundred eighty-eight days later, it's become wholly evident just how wrong those comparisons were.
Boychuk signed his second consecutive one-year contract Tuesday afternoon, a two-way deal that will carry a cap hit less than half of what he earned five years ago. Per team reporter Michael Smith:
#Canes ink Boychuk to a one-year, two-way contract. $550k in the NHL or $105k in the AHL.— Michael Smith (@MSmithCanes) August 20, 2013
The now-23-year-old converted left winger has spent most of the past four years mellowing in the depths of the minor leagues. Boychuk has tallied 209 points in 256 career AHL appearances but only 20 points in 85 career NHL games.
There's little question that Boychuk's development was stunted prematurely by rushing him into Raleigh too quickly.
After turning professional for the first time in 2009-10, he was shoved like a square peg into a round NHL role, preventing him from first establishing a rhythm against lesser AHL competition.
Consider his year-by-year NHL appearances and production below:
Former Carolina coach Paul Maurice's aggressive, overzealous tendencies when dealing with young players certainly did not work for Boychuk, just as it didn't for many other 'Canes prospects of the era.
Yet, for fellow AHL-ers like Brandon Sutter, Patrick Dwyer, Riley Nash and Jamie McBain, Maurice's ill-advised style was simply another obstacle in their paths to full-time NHL jobs.
For Boychuk, though, it proved to be more than just another obstacle.
It proved to be a career killer.
To his credit, he has remained optimistic about his hockey future to this day.
Even after bouncing from Charlotte to Raleigh to Pittsburgh to Nashville to Charlotte again during his waiver claim-laden 2013 campaign, he returned enthusiastically to the AHL to close out a solid 43-point regular season and score six points in five postseason appearances.
Boychuk's willingness to stomach a one-year contract at minimum wage must be admired, as well. Per his personal Twitter handle:
Want to thank the @NHLCanes for sticking with me. I'm looking forward to a bounce back season and proving many people wrong!— Zach Boychuk (@ZachBoychuk) August 20, 2013
He also spoke positively to Chip Alexander of the News & Observer earlier this week:
I think I’m really looking forward to this season, to kind of get off on the right foot and prove last year was a crazy year for everybody. I’m trying to make the NHL. I was a high draft pick and got opportunities at a young age, probably when I wasn’t 100 percent ready and 100 percent mature. Now I feel I have to prove some people wrong and hopefully I can do that this year.
I want to be a full-time player.
In theory, Boychuk does indeed have one more season ahead to revitalize his career. He's shown in the minor leagues that he still possesses the laser shot and blazing skating speed that made him a first-rounder so long ago.
However, he would need to surpass a truly massive cast of NHL hopefuls, all of whom are already several steps ahead of him, to accomplish that goal.
Boychuck's most likely 2013-14 home could very well be Charlotte. He wouldn't be the first first-round bust to both begin and end his professional career in the AHL; 2004's Alexandre Picard and 2001's Petr Taticek both followed similar paths.
It seems that, by this point, Boychuk's attempted climb back to major-league relevancy may be impossibly steep.
Thirty-seven players chosen in the 2008 draft have accumulated more NHL points than Boychuk has so far; 27 of them, moreover, were picked after 14th overall.
Among them are former Calder (Tyler Myers), Norris (Karlsson) and Art Ross (Steven Stamkos) Trophy winners and a plethora of other household names, ranging from Zach Bogosian and Drew Doughty to Derek Stepan to Adam Henrique.
Three (Doughty, Slava Voynov and Andrei Loktionov) already have Stanley Cup rings on their fingers. Two others (Henrique and Cody Hodgson) have each been members of conference champion teams.
Will Boychuk turn his career around in 2013-14?
Among them are even such disappointments as Colin Wilson, Mikkel Boedker and Jake Gardiner, who have all failed to match the lofty expectations set by their top-20 draft positions.
And then there's Boychuk.
Will the enigmatic Airdrie, Alberta native ever amount to anything other than a historic mistake?
In another five years, or another 10 years, or another 50 years, will the common Boychuk surname be associated with the forename Zach at all?
And Tuesday's last-chance contract signing will probably do nothing to change that.
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