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PENTICTON — Something funny happened at the Canucks’ prospects tournament which many assumed would be the showcase for the team’s young centres.
The wingers were better.
Nicklas Jensen was Vancouver’s best player. He’s more developed, polished and closer to the NHL than any of the centres. He’s also leaner and faster this year. He had 16 shots in three games. It felt like 30.
Canucks fans are going to really like what they see in him when main training camp begins this weekend.
But they are going to love Hunter Shinkaruk.
When this tournament started, most in attendance had the same question. What number is Bo Horvat?
By the end Monday, it was: How do you pronounce Shinkaruk?
Shinkaruk (Shin-care-ick) is 180 pounds of personality. He may still be the “other” player the Canucks drafted in the first round in June, but that’s not going to last.
On the ice, he’s head-bobbing around chests, stick-handling through feet in the slot, and thrusting himself into corners and toward the front of the net.
His game is as active as Bourbon Street. Just wait for the fans to start throwing beads if he ever manages to score a goal in the preseason.
But Shinkaruk can also be cavalier with the puck. At 18, maybe he’s got too much creativity. It may cost him against NHL players, maybe even next week. It will drive some coaches crazy.
Even here, he tried a blind back pass through his legs in front of the net in his first game. He heard about it.
“I talked to him a couple times this week,” coach Travis Green said. “We talked about puck possession and, really, puck decisions. At the NHL level, you’ve got to manage the puck. It’s not a game where you can make high-risk plays and take chances.
“When you watch a game closely in the NHL, you don’t see a lot of players tossing pucks behind their backs.”
Too bad, because it’s a blast to watch from the stands.
“Maybe there are things I can get away with in junior that I can’t get away with here,” Shinkaruk said. “They didn’t like that (back pass) too much.
“I like that play in junior.
“I’ve always tried to be a creative player. I’m always trying new things and I always say, ‘Why try it in practice if you’re never going to do it in a game?’
“I will not just leave all that out of my game. I got to have fun.”
Well, he’s got that down.
There wasn’t a Canucks forward in Penticton with more creativity and offensive instincts, which helps explain why ESPN had Shinkaruk ranked as the Canucks’ best prospect, and No. 22 overall in the NHL, on its list of the top 100 prospects for 2013-14. Horvat was No. 28, Frankie Corrado 78, and Jensen was at 83. Brendan Gaunce wasn’t on the list.
In Monday’s tournament closer, a 2-1 win for the Canucks, Shinkaruk got their first shot on net and scored the winning goal.
He produced scoring chances while killing penalties. And he drove the Winnipeg Jets, a lineup loaded with top prospects, batty. He’s a good talker off the ice, and if this tournament is any indication, he likes to chat with opponents, too.
When he’s on his game, he has his fingers in all the pies. He can agitate while trying to be as creative as an advertising firm. We’ll have to see how that act plays out against NHL players.
“I’m going to training camp to try and make the team,” Shinkaruk said. “At the pro level, it’s a little different than junior. It’s how they’re feeding their families.
“I can’t go in there and be intimidated by them. That will be the day I get sent home.
“I’m going in to try and play my game.”
In Monday’s game, when a loose puck hopped up at the side of the net in the first period, Shinkaruk chopped at it frantically, like he was in a lumberjack Olympics. He got his whacks in, then was cross-checked into the post. He popped up a few seconds later, smiling. Next party, next show.
When he scored the winner, his first goal of the tournament, he burst out with emotion. The kid looked ready to leap into the crowd.
You’re not going to find many players who make hockey look this fun.
“He’s contagious,” Green acknowledged. “As a coach, you know he’s excited to play the game. You always want to see players who like coming to the rink.
“Because, at the end of the day, you’re playing a game, but this is hard.
“If you have fun and enjoy being at the rink, those guys seem to do well and prosper. There’s times during the season when it’s not easy going to the rink.”
It sure didn’t look hard for Shinkaruk in Penticton.