In yesterday’s Daily Cup of Joe, I pegged the 2015-16 season as an important one for Ryan Murphy to stake a claim to his place on the Canes blue line.

So flipping to the other side of the roster today, I ask who is the Ryan Murphy equivalent for the Carolina Hurricanes at forward?

The situation is quite different. On defense the Canes system is suddenly stocked on the blue line.  Most are still early in their development and very light on NHL and even AHL experience, but both the elite potential and volume/depth are  significant. The Canes system is much thinner at forward.  As the roster stands right now, the Canes are looking at two openings for the opening night roster (realizing that there is a good chance that the team will add a forward before then). And the prospect pool at the forward position is thinner. In a blog specifically about the right wing position (which you can find HERE), I pointed out the nearly bare cupboard at right wing. There is more depth at left wing and center but most of it looks to be a few years away from ready and the ratings per the experts do not match that of the Canes blue line options.

When you net it out, the ball is on the tee for anyone to rise up in training camp, claim a spot on the roster and keep it.   Zach Boychuk is the Ryan Murphy equivalent in terms of bringing the most real NHL experience into the September training camp.  Mention of Zach Boychuk’s name often stirs up a side conversation about his high draft position and where he is now at age 25.  So sure the Canes would rather have Erik Karlsson right now (he was drafted right after Boychuk), but I have a ton of respect for how Zach Boychuk has handled his professional hockey journey.

When things got tough and were not working out a couple years back, Boychuk was presented with the option to become the grumbling, bitter former hopeful star who blamed his team, coaches or someone else for his lot in life/hockey likely leading to a fast path out of town.

He did exactly the opposite.  Instead or grumbling or becoming bitter, he humbly signed a minimum type contract to return to Charlotte/Raleigh, showed up early for training camp with a great attitude and just kept working at trying to get to the NHL level.  In choosing that path, he showed maturity and character.  Maybe more significantly, he clearly put himself in the category of veteran that the Canes felt comfortable having around younger impressionable players in Charlotte. There is still no guarantee that Zach Boychuk will become an every-game NHL player, but the Canes re-upped again this summer with a contract that guarantees him $250,000 minimum even at the AHL level and at least adds NHL-experienced depth.

With his two most recent contracts, the Canes organization has showed that it trusts him to be a leader, key scorer and veteran influence at the AHL level. But what of his chances to play at the NHL level?

Unless the Canes make a flurry of moves to add multiple forwards late, the door is again wide open for him to enter camp and win a spot. He had this chance last season, did win some NHL ice time, but ultimately did not stick at the NHL level. He made progress playing a better two-way game and forechecking like he was only going to play 8-10 minutes per night (because he was).

But along the way, his scoring seemed to evaporate.  He mustered only 6 points (3 goals, 3 assists) in 31 games in the NHL with the Canes in 2014-15 after registering 74 points in 69 games in nearly a full season in the AHL in 2013-14.  It is not clear whether the focus on defensive acumen sapped the scoring or if it was one of any number of other factors.  Any of a variety of factors including fewer minutes and very little power play ice time, mostly checking line type line mates, a different role/expectations, better competition and maybe just simply a personal emphasis on getting the non-scoring stuff right could be the cause.  Regardless, Zach Boychuk improved upon some of the things that held him back in the past but did not deliver much scoring upside that one might have hoped for given his offensive production at lower levels.

So following many seasons of gradual adjustment and a decent run of improved play without the puck in 2014-15, is it possible that 2015-16 is the season when Boychuk finds a comfort zone at the NHL level such that he can maintain his improved play defensively and also bring his AHL skill/scoring to NHL level?  The 2015-16 Hurricanes training camp could present possibly the last opportunity for Zach Boychuk to seize a more regular NHL slot before the Canes more permanently fill the open slots or choose to use them for players who are 3-5 years younger with more long-term upside.

Go Canes!

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