“There were a lot of crazy things that happened, especially to me,” he said.
In a bizarre two-month period following the end of the NHL’s lockout, Boychuk played for a total of four teams, beginning and ending with the Checkers. In addition to the by-now routine trip between the AHL and NHL, a trip he has now made 24 times in his four professional seasons, he spent time with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators before the Hurricanes submitted a third waiver claim that brought him back into the system in March.
Though he ended the season in familiar territory – he was the Checkers’ scoring leader in the playoffs with six points (3g, 3a) in five games – it was a process that has led the 23-year-old, who is set to become a restricted free agent, to enter the summer with more uncertainty than ever.
“There are a lot of options out there right now and anything could happen, whether it’s going to Europe, getting traded or, since Carolina brought me back, they might be really excited and we might be able to get a deal done,” he said.
Though just one of a handful of options he could be considering, Boychuk wouldn’t be the first restricted free agent to head to Europe. In fact, he’d be the fourth Checkers player to do so in three years, following in the footsteps of Oskar Osala, Evgenii Dadonov and Mike Murphy.
Despite putting that possibility on the table, Boychuk still showed an interest in signing a new contract with Carolina, the team that selected him with the 14th overall pick in the 2008 draft, now that his one-year, two-way deal from last summer is set to expire on July 5.
“I’m still only 23 years old and would love to come back and try to make Carolina if they want me here,” he said. “It all depends on what the future is for me and where they see me fitting in the organization. There are a lot of decisions to make this summer and I’m definitely going to be talking to my agent over the next few days.
“Anything could happen, and I know you can’t take anything too seriously because of the lockout year. I’ve got to look at the positives and I’d love to be back and try to make Carolina.”
Boychuk feels that his body of work over the course of this season helps his cause. On a pre-lockout team loaded with talented players, he was the top scorer with 32 points in 37 games prior to his NHL stint. That helped him earn a spot on the Hurricanes’ opening-night roster out of training camp for the first time, something he called “a great accomplishment.”
“Playing this year during the lockout with how good the (AHL) was and how many great players were playing, I played some of my best hockey that I’ve ever played with Charlotte,” he said.
Things didn’t work out quite so well in the NHL, where Carolina couldn’t get him into its lineup, Pittsburgh didn’t get enough point production from him to justify a spot on its top line and Nashville chose to move on after five games without a great deal of specific feedback.
Though disappointed that he wasn’t able to stick with any of those teams, all Boychuk did upon returning to Charlotte was increase his offensive output even further. In 17 total games, including regular season and playoffs, he posted a team-high 10 goals and 17 points, more than any other Checker during that time.
When everything was said and done, he set an AHL career high with 23 goals despite playing a career-low 49 games. He was among the team’s top five in goals (second), points (third), plus/minus (fifth), power-play goals (tied for first) and game-winning goals (second).
“When he got back to us was the most consistent he played over the years,” said Jeff Daniels, Boychuk’s coach since his rookie season in 2009-10. “I think it was an eye-opener for him going from team to team, but I think he came back as a better player and a hungrier player.”
“It was a year that I’ll remember and one to look back on and say that I definitely improved as a player,” said Boychuk.
Time will tell if that’s enough to enhance Carolina’s opinion of him as prospect for the NHL, where he has 20 points (8g, 12a) in 85 career games. That could go a long way towards determining whether he’s back next season, either with the Hurricanes, the Checkers, or the previously-seen combination of both.
Even if he has to take a different route than the once planned, his long-term goal remains the same, and his eventual decision will be with that in mind.
“I definitely feel like I can play in the NHL if I’m given the right opportunity,” he said. “I’m not ready to give up.”