It’s a really tricky thing to make it in the NHL. Unless you’re a superstar with tremendous natural skill and undeniable physical gifts, it takes a lot of work and time to make it to the top. Think of any player and there’s probably a stint in juniors or college, followed by some minor league time before the NHL is even in the picture. Then to crack an NHL roster and become established in a niche is quite a challenge. If one can find the right organization at the right time, it can make all the difference in the world. Like Brian Strait has done with the Islanders, or how Ben Lovejoy now hopes to with the Ducks.
Zach Boychuk is in that boat as well. At 23 years old, the former first round pick is at a career cross-roads. A former first round pick in 2008, Boychuk has great skill, during the lockout he scored 32 points in 37 games for Carolina’s farm team. But time is running out for Boychuk to be anything but an elite minor leaguer that never seems to stick anywhere and bounces from team to team and NHL to AHL. Call it the Keith Aucoin syndrome.
Boychuk’s job is a difficult one- he’s not going to be a 3rd or 4th line NHLer, he’s not big, strong, physical or defensive minded enough to fill that role. It’s scoring line forward or bust for Boychuk- and if he can’t make a difference in the NHL (the land of private planes, deluxe hotels and big paychecks) then it’ll be in the AHL (the purgatory of long bus rides and lesser paychecks). A lot is on the line for his professional career path.
When a lot of people think “scoring forward”, they should think “power play time”. Look up and down the roster and the top players always fatten their stats by cashing in on the power play. This is not a luxury that Boychuk will receive. Through six games with the Penguins, Boychuk isn’t being used on that unit at all; 0:00 on the season. He’s got to make his mark and prove himself at even-strength.
And the chance he’s been given is a good one- playing left wing with reigning league MVP and scoring champion Evgeni Malkin as a center and 40-goal all-star James Neal as right winger. Sounds awesome, right?
Well, it’s better than being stuck on the 4th line in Carolina, but it’s still no easy matter. Malkin and Neal have a year and half of chemistry built up, they know how to play together and off one another. Boychuk has been trying to keep up, but through six games his spacing, timing, little passes and zone entries still have a way’s to go.
Production will also be the key. The Penguins tried to give the job to Eric Tangradi, but he just hasn’t been productive at all scoring 1 goal in his 45 game NHL career, including 0 goals and 0 assists in five games this season, mostly used in the spot Boychuk finds himself as the third member of the Malkin-Neal line.
The problem that Tangradi found and Boychuk knows now too, is that Chris Kunitz has some big skates to fill. Kunitz, of course, played with Malkin-Neal last year, while Sidney Crosby was injured, and had a career years scoring 25 goals and 31 assists with his high-powered linemates.
What made Kunitz successful? How can Boychuk or the next guy in that spot find cash in on it?
Kunitz is one of the Penguins best forecheckers in what they call an “F1” or the first player on the attack. Kunitz also is a fearless physical player and a good skater that will quickly pressure the opponents and force them to make a bad pass, or at least funnel them to one side of the ice where Malkin or Neal could pounce and compete for a loose puck and quickly transition back to offense.
Kunitz also excels at puck battles behind the net and in the corners, he’s excellent at digging pucks out of scrums and then his most under-rated skill might be his playmaking and vision with little, quick passes in the offensive zone. Kunitz can extend plays with his puck control and thinks the game exceptionally well. He’s a great player in traffic and was able to feed Malkin and Neal in the offensive zone to allow them to generate chances.
Some of those skills are (or should be) tailor-made for Tangradi’s game, like physical play along the boards or using size to impose upon the forecheck. Some of those Kunitz skills fit better with Boychuk, who probably has better and quicker hands than Kunitz.
However neither player the Pens have auditioned this year have come close to replacing Kunitz, as evidenced by the glaring 0 points combined for Tangradi, Boychuk and Dustin Jeffrey have had in that role through 13 games. Boychuk has worked hard to generate chances- a few breakaways and shots stand out. He needs to make sure he concentrates on getting the puck to the net; Boychuk has just 2 shots on goal in the past four games. That’s not going to cut it for a guy trying out for such a big role.
Auditions don’t last forever, and the clock could be running out on Boychuk. The Penguins need and want some production from the “other” winger on their top offensive line. With internal replacements failing, and a waiver claim not running with the opportunity, Pens GM Ray Shero may be forced to attempt to make a trade close to the deadline to bring in a winger to play with Crosby so the Pens can finally right the Malkin line by moving Kunitz back.
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