Carolina's 2008 first round pick Zach Boychuk was quoted in a Canes Now article saying that this coming season is a "huge year for him" and that he wants to "make that next big step" by making the Hurricanes right out of camp and permanently joining the Hurricanes. Boychuk has played 56 games with the Hurricanes over the last three seasons and has accumulated only 7 goals and 16 points during that time. That isn't the best reflect of his abilities as he received fourth line minutes during a lot of those games but I do believe that this coming season could be what makes or breaks Boychuk in terms of how successful his NHL career will be.
Boychuk will be 22 by the time this season starts and most high draft picks who turn into great players make their leap into the NHL by that age or earlier so this could be "the year" for Boychuk to take that next step if the Canes want him to be the guy they drafted in the first round three years ago. I know a lot will say "but he has talent and will figure it out eventually" but you know what other high draft picks had talent? Zach Hamil, Alex Picard, Robbie Schremp, Mikhail Yakubov, Kamil Kreps and numerous others who did not turn into starts despite being hyped and drafted early. I am not saying that Boychuk will end up like any of these players, but I do think that this year will be the most important of his career to prove he can be a top-six forward in the NHL.
I'll explain why after the jump.
A good question is just how good will Boychuk be at the NHL level? What we can do to answer this question is look at similar players to him (forwards who made their jump to the NHL as a full-time player at the age of 22) and use their stats in the AHL and NHL to see how he compares to them. I composed a list of 81 players drafted early in the past 20 years who became full-time NHL-ers at the age of 22 and had previous experience in the AHL to see where Boychuk stands. Here's how he compares in the grand scheme of things:
Boychuk has been a better goal-scorer at the AHL-level than his comparables which is pretty understandable if you've watched enough video clips of him playing in Charlotte, Albany or in the WHL, but I always considered him to be more of a play-maker. If he has shifted his game to being more of a goal-scorer then that would fit this team perfectly as most of Carolina's vacancies are on the wing. The downside here is that Boychuk is not that big of a point-getter as he finished under his comparables in the AHL.
At the NHL level, the numbers from Boychuk's comparables don't look promising at all but I'm assuming that some of the data is skewed from some of the zeros that showed up. I can safely say that we should expect more than 4 goals and 10 points in an 82 game season from Boychuk. One conclusion we can draw from this is that Boychuk is a better goal-scorer than most of his comparables, which is good news as far as the Canes are concerned.
To get a better picture of what kind of NHL career Boychuk will have, let's take a look at some of his comparables who had similar AHL numbers.
Here are his comparables in terms of points per game:
Of course, we have to consider that Boychuk is a different type of player than some of these guys. For instance, I would love if he turned out like Chris Stewart but Boychuk's about six inches and 30 pounds lighter than him. Blair Betts is a grinder and not a skillful player like Boychuk so he wouldn't be the best comparison either. The names that stick out to be the most on here are Lauri Korpikoski, Niclas Bergfors and Max Pacioretty. Why those three in particular? Because they are known a lot more for their skill, are similar in size to him (although Boychuk is a little shorter) and have had a good amount of AHL experience before being called up.
Korpikoski possesses a solid two-way game, is a great skater and his defensive abilities seem to be improving every year. There are plenty of differences between him and Boychuk, though. For one, Korpikoski isn't much of a goal-scorer and only potted 19 last season because he was shooting the puck at an astoundingly high 18.4%. He's best suited as a third or fourth liner and we need Boychuk to be more than that.
Next we have Max Pacioretty who has plenty of NHL experience at the age of 23 and his game is a little similar to Boychuk's because he is more of an offense-first kind of guy. Or at least that's the impression I get when I watch him. He didn't really begin to show himself as a goal-scorer at the NHL level until last season when he was protected more but maybe that was good for him. Boychuk's a little more sound defensively, and I'm hoping he is a little more consistent than Pacioretty has been in the NHL even though his past history may not indicate that. Although, if Boychuk can score at least 14 goals in a third-line role next season, I won't have too many complaints. First line will be differnet, though.
Lastly, there's Niclas Bergfors who spent about four years in the AHL before finally being called up to the Devils full-time. He was pretty young when his career began though, as he was only 22 when he first joined the Devils. Bergfors is a natural goal-scorer and much more of a one-way player than Boychuk is. His possession numbers do impress me a lot, though and I think his defensive inefficiencies are overblown. Any player who can start 48% of his draws in his own zone and create offense out of it is a welcome addition to my team. I could see Boychuk having similar box-car stats to Bergfors (12-21 goals a year) but I may be feeling a little too optimistic here. Is Boychuk as good of a possession driver as Bergfors? We'll have to wait and see about that.
Here are his comparables by goals per game.
A lot of interesting names here. Through this, we can say that Boychuk's ceiling is Derek Roy in terms of production and while they have a similar frame, but Roy is known more for his playmaking skills (higher AHL pts/game stat shows that) and there's a good chance that Boychuk won't play center in the NHL. That being said, if we can get Roy-like production out of Boychuk, then I will be beyond pleased. The chances are kind of slim when you consider the other names on the list,though. Jack Skille, Jamie McGinn and Justin Abdelkader were never able to get beyond the third line on their respected teams despite being decent goal-scorers in the AHL. Max Pacioretty's name showing up again shows that we may get production similar to to him out of Boychuk based their similar AHL numbers. Of course, you have to consider things like zone starts, shooting percentages, ice-time (hoping Boychuk will see time on the powerplay), linemates and other factors that will likely come into play during Boychuik's career. Regardless, we can conclude that production similar to Derek Roy is the most we can expect out of Boychuk and production similar to Alex Picard is the lowest. (although that seems impossible unless Boychuk fails to make the team at all).
When it comes down to it, Carolina's first line wingers this season are slated to be Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart, so if Boychuk doesn't make the team then we can start questioning whether he will have an NHL career at all. It's a big year for Boychuk because this is his best chance to make the team but it's a good guess about what kind of a year he will have. What this exercize does is clear the air a little bit and determine what we should expect from Boychuk if he does play a full-season, which would be something around 12-16 goals at the least.