I am truly sorry to say that Jim Benning has made a team other than his own – in this case unfortunately, ours – look bad.
When the Flames acquired Vancouver top prospect Hunter Shinkaruk for go-nowhere centre Markus Granlund, it was declared an immediate steal. Shinkaruk was arguably the story of the late 2015-16 season, slotting in with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan on the top line and immediately gelling.
Since then, things have not been great. Shinkaruk was cut from training camp and struggled relative to the season before in the AHL while Granlund stuck in Vancouver and became one of their better players this year.
But it may not be as bad as it looks.
A local product, Shinkaruk has been putting up numbers everywhere he’s gone. He recorded 42 points in 63 games in his first WHL season, and 91 in 68 the next, scoring 49 goals that year. A potential top 10 pick in 2013 (and someone who many fans clamoured for on draft day), he slipped to Vancouver’s hands, becoming the 24th overall pick.
The next few years weren’t so lucky. His offence plateaued in his draft+1 year and an injury claimed his D+2 year. However, he rebounded in the professional ranks, becoming a key member on some sorry Utica Comets teams. In particular, his 2015-16 year raised heads. Even after he was traded, he finished second on the Comets in scoring, trailing the leader by nine points and 24 games played. The man in third, former Flame Carter Bancks, finished with the same total in 31 more games.
|GP-G-A-P||Primary Points||5v5 P1||NHLe|
Even with his struggles this season, he was still able to be a reliable provider of primary offence at all situations. He also had significantly less ice time, playing at a second line rate according to prospect-stats. Everything, except for secondary assists, was rated at a first line clip, so perhaps with first line minutes, his numbers go up.
The graph does not paint a pretty picture.
Perhaps a bit of misfortune plays into this. After he was recalled (that flat line on the left), he started struggling, so I originally felt the two could be linked. This was also compounded by an injury that forced him to take three weeks off. Later, he did improve, but then fell down as the rest of the Heat did, recovering when they recovered, too.
Perhaps he was a guy who stumbled into the wrong place at the wrong time, but I find it a bit troubling that, for a guy who was supposed to be one of the Heat’s key contributors, he couldn’t help when they really needed it. Again, maybe bad luck, maybe a step back. I lean towards bad luck considering the season he had before the Heat started struggling.
Once again, we go to Stockton play-by-play man Brandon Kisker, who has some explanations for Shinkaruk’s struggles:
I think there was a time where Shink lost a bit of confidence. You know you start gripping that stick tightly and you start getting unlucky with your chances and you start to wonder if you’ll ever score again. And unfortunately for Hunter, everyone not named Jankowski was having a rough go of it at that time. But as in all streaks they come to an end and you can see him pick his game back up toward the end of the year during our playoff push and he started doing things we know he can do. Certainly, a tougher year than he wanted yes, but reason to panic, no. He was big for us in the first round series with San Jose I thought.
So what should he do to be an NHLer next year?
I think one of the simplest things that makes an NHLer an NHLer is consistency. I think that’s also one of the reasons prospects in hockey don’t jump from being junior stars to NHLers with ease (except for the top overall picks). For Hunter and everyone on the Heat it’s consistency, being able to rely on him to bring the energy and get a goal when they need it. He really stepped up his game toward the end of the year and was noticeable night in and night out, which leads me to believe that the slump that hit everyone was just that, a one-off slump. Plus, there aren’t too many players I’d rather have, Game 5, overtime, breakaway chance to send your team past the best team in the West than him. Tough bounce off the post… off the goalie, and behind the net. Mere centimeters away from still playing hockey right now.
After this season, Shinkaruk is on a razor-thin line.
The Flames currently have 14 forwards on their roster, and only Kris Versteeg is a UFA (and there’s no reason not to bring him back). Assuming they qualify all of their RFAs (the only questionable one is Alex Chiasson, and again, no reason not to), there’s really no space left. For their prospects’ sake, the team has to hope that one of their forwards gets claimed.
But even if that did happen, there’s still 13 players. Maybe they bury another guy (sorry F.Ham or Bouma), but that’s a full lineup of forwards left. This is also assuming the Flames don’t acquire another high-end piece for their roster, or don’t make any other moves (and honestly, with the quality of the bottom six, there’s probably not a lot of moves that can be made). No matter which way you cut it, there may only be one spot available for AHLers to make the jump.
And that’s a problem because there will be a lot of competition for that spot, especially among guys who only have one year to make the show. Shinkaruk, along with Mark Jankowski, Morgan Klimchuk, Daniel Pribyl, and (to a lesser extent) Emile Poirier will all be out of a contract at the end of next season. With a promising crop of kids heading up from the 2016 draft (Dube, Tuulola, Phillips will be out of the CHL, Lindstrom is a maybe), you figure that those who don’t prove their worth are gone. You can’t, and shouldn’t, hold on to a bunch of AHL 20-somethings forever.
I might give Shinkaruk a bit of an edge due to previous experience in the league and his ability to play both wings, but again, razor thin. If bad luck strikes again or his performance levels dip, it’s hard to justify a second contract. If he makes the Flames, he has to stick. If he doesn’t, he has to be the best in Stockton. Simple as that.
Rasmus Andersson, Kenney Morrison, Tyler Wotherspoon, Oliver Kylington, Stepan Falkovsky, Keegan Kanzig/Mason McDonald, Ryan Culkin/Brett Pollock, Mitchell Mattson, Adam Fox, Brandon Hickey, Riley Bruce/Nick Schneider, Tyler Parsons, Eetu Tuulola, Matt Phillips, Dillon Dube, Adam Ollas Mattsson, Linus Lindstrom, Pavel Karnaukhov/Rushan Rafikov, Tim Harrison