The head coach can’t pronounce his last name yet, but Hunter Shinkaruk, a first-round draft choice, has already been noticed by John Tortorella.
It is an unusual training camp for the Vancouver Canucks, starting with the new bench boss. But, more so, it is the first time in Mike Gillis’s stint as general manager that rookies have a real shot to make the team, as Vancouver aims to inject some young blood into an aging lineup – in part because of the salary cap but as much for the need of the oomph of youth.
Shinkaruk, an 18-year-old who was the Canucks’ second first-round draft pick (No.24) in June, is among a group of young men who have never played in the NHL but could crack the opening-night lineup in October. Nicklas Jensen, a 20-year-old winger who was a 2011 first-round pick, likely has the best shot, with Swedish Hockey League and AHL experience, as well as two NHL games last year.
But Shinkaruk produced an immediate impression Thursday, during on-ice fitness sessions, a series of tests under Tortorella reputed to be one of the tougher preseason regimens in the league.
“I see him scooting around the ice. You know, it piques my interest,” Tortorella said of the 5-foot-10, 181-pound forward, while conceding, “I don’t even know how to pronounce his name yet.”
The Canucks have not been a team open to rookies for several reasons, led by the fact it has picked at the bottom of the first round for years and the philosophy of management is similar to the Detroit Red Wings, where young players develop their game in junior or the minors, rather than rush to the NHL.
This is why Jensen probably has the best shot to make the team and Shinkaruk will get a good look but has a lesser chance to claim a roster spot.
“There are a lot of different things that come into play,” said Tortorella, who was fired by the New York Rangers in the off-season, then hired to replace Alain Vigneault in Vancouver. “I want to give the kids a long look, because I think our organization needs to instill some youth. Having said that, we do not want to hurt their development either.”
While it is Shinkaruk’s first camp, he already has had ice time with some of the best players in the league. His trainer is Andy O’Brien, with whom Shinkaruk connected at the Edge School in Calgary, a specialized sports academy. O’Brien is the long-time trainer of Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, among others.
In the summer, Shinkaruk found himself at a camp in Halifax, with the likes of Crosby, John Tavares and Jason Spezza.
“I kind of had to pinch myself when I was on a 2-on-1 with Crosby,” Shinkaruk said.
The left winger turns 19 in October, six games into the Canucks season, and produced 177 points (86 goals) in over 130 games in his last two WHL seasons with the Medicine Hat Tigers. He knows the competition he is up against but feels poised.
“When I’m out on that ice, I absolutely feel ready.”
Two other young prospects – Bo Horvat and Brendan Gaunce – are also in race and, if they produce, could fill a gaping hole at third- and fourth-line centre. But Gaunce, a first-round pick in 2102 (No. 26), does appear ready, and Horvat, the No. 9 pick this year – acquired from the New Jersey Devils in the Cory Schneider trade – would probably benefit from another year of major junior. (His London Knights will play host to the 2014 Memorial Cup.)
“You have to come into camp and think everyone’s equal, because you have to get a spot somehow from someone,” Gaunce said after he hacked his way through Tortorella’s skating drills.
In the absence of a surge from Horvat or Gaunce, the Canucks have journeymen veterans Brad Richardson and Mike Santorelli, signed in the summer, as potential centres, as well as second-year player Jordan Schroeder, who is coming off shoulder surgery.
For the rookies, it is about show-not-tell, Ryan Kesler said. The second-line centre recalled his own rookie camp in 2003-04, when he felt he should have made the team as a 19-year-old. He didn’t, but did play, after a stint in the minors, 28 games for the Canucks that season.
“You’re nervous going in,” Kesler said. “I was going in playing against some of my idols growing, like [Trevor] Linden and [Todd] Bertuzzi. As camp goes on you become more confident that you can make the team.”
Advice from former Canucks GM Brian Burke sticks with him.
“I still remember Burkey telling me, ‘Shut up and play.’ That means rookies don’t say a word. Go out and do your job.”