Jayce Hawryluk, one of the Panthers’ most promising forward prospects for the past several years, is finally a step closer to NHL.
Chosen by Florida in the 2nd round (32nd overall) of the 2014 NHL Draft, the now 21-year old is in the midst of his first pro season with the Springfield Thunderbirds after spending the past 4 years in the Western Hockey League playing for the Brandon Wheat Kings.
He’s currently tied for 17th on the Wheat Kings’ all-time scoring list with 278 points in 232 games, nearly half of which came in his final season when he tallied a career-high 47 goals and 58 assists for 106 points in 58 games, ranking him 4th in the league despite playing in 14 fewer games than the players above him.
Hawryluk capped off the breakout season by signing his 3-year, entry-level contract in March, and his resumè and style of play have fans excited about what’s to come.
“I’m an aggressive two-way forward that never gives up on a puck,” Hawryluk says. “I try to play similar to the likes of Brad Marchand or a Brendan Gallagher-type of player, kind of in your face with that ‘never quit’ attitude. I like to feel I’ve got a nice skill-set that I use with my shot and my speed.”
Although Hawryluk wasn’t a lock to make the Panthers out of camp this campaign, there were a couple of spots to be filled, and he wanted one of them.
“My goal is to come in here and make this team this year,” said Hawryluk in July. “I’m gonna do everything I can this summer to set myself up for the best chance to do that.”
Rehab for an ankle injury he suffered and played through during a long playoff run with Brandon a couple of months prior kept him out of most of July’s development camp activities. However, he came to September’s rookie tournament ready to push for a spot in the Panthers’ lineup.
The Panthers’ new AHL coaching staff of Geordie Kinnear, Michael Ryan, and Doug Janik put Hawryluk with center Denis Malgin and winger Kyle Rau during the tournament and it turned out to be an offensive juggernaut.
That is until a fight with Capitals’ forward Jakub Vrana left the agitating Hawryluk with a broken hand halfway through the 2nd game.
He underwent surgery shortly thereafter which forced him out of not only the Panthers’ main training camp, but the first 18 games of his first pro season in the AHL. The injury, in the process, set the tone for what would be an injury-plagued season for the organization as a whole.
When it seemed as though there was a light at the end of the tunnel for Hawryluk, the hits kept on coming – literally.
In the 2nd period of his AHL debut for the Thunderbirds on December 2nd, Hawryluk suffered a concussion on a blindside hit by Connor Jones of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
He went on to miss another 11 games before returning to action a month later on January 4th to face the Sound Tigers once again, registering his first pro point, an assist, on a goal by MacKenzie Weegar.
“It was obviously not the start I wanted, there was just a lot of bad bounces,” said Hawryluk of his pre-season roadblocks in the form of long-term injuries.
“You train all summer for a big season and it all kind of gets postponed a little bit. I’ve had to overcome some adversity and whatnot, but there’s a lot of hockey left to be played this season and I’m just focusing on having a big impact.”
When the Panthers assigned 19-year old Denis Malgin to the Thunderbirds in late-January, it only made sense to reunite him with Hawryluk on the top line. The hope was that they’d rekindle the chemistry they had in the pre-season to help spark a struggling Thunderbirds offense.
Hawryluk’s first pro goal came in his 9th game of the season – and first on a line with Malgin – against, you guessed it, the Sound Tigers. He fought off an opposing player to station himself in front of the goal mouth and was in the perfect position to put a Denis Malgin pass into a virtually empty net.
He returned the favor to Malgin with a perfect cross-ice feed the next night for the first AHL goal of the Switzerland-native’s own career.
“I found with Malgin, just playing with each other through rookie camp, we started to get to know each other’s tendencies and feed off each other in a positive way,” said Hawryluk. “I feel like that’s translated to our pro games.”
For Hawryluk, the transition to the AHL from the WHL has required a bigger adjustment off the ice than on it. Although his stat line wouldn’t suggest that any adjusting was necessary, being with fellow Panthers prospects has apparently helped the process.
“It’s been a little bit different,” admits Hawryluk. “Living on your own is probably the biggest adjustment, just becoming a pro off the ice as well as trying to stay focused on the ice is probably the biggest thing.”
“Taking care of yourself, getting your rest when you need to get your rest, showing up to play every day. It’s your job now so it’s a little bit different than it was in junior; you can’t take any days off in this league or you’ll get exposed. It’s also definitely helpful playing with guys that you’ve played with before for chemistry reasons.”
Through 16 games, he has 4 goals, 3 of which came in 3 consecutive games, 2 multi-point games, and 2 point streaks of 3 games. He’s factored into 10 of the Thunderbirds’ 34 goals since his return to action on January 4th and has been on the ice for just 3 even-strength goals against while also getting top power play time.
Sure, things are faster, heavier, and more structured overall in the AHL; it’s pro hockey. But as a player who has played that way for his entire career thus far, Hawryluk has hardly been phased by any of it.
“I think the speed is definitely a little bit faster than it was in juniors but not a whole bunch,” Hawryluk says. “Guys are obviously bigger and stronger, so that’s the main thing I’ve noticed. After the first few games I got under my belt, I started to feel more confident out there with the puck.”
“The best part of my game right now would probably be my ability to get in on the forecheck quick and create havoc and offense.”
That grit is something the Panthers lost some of in the off-season after Erik Gudbranson departed to Vancouver in a trade for Jared McCann. Shawn Thornton is alsohalfway through what is widely assumed to be his last hurrah, while other hard-nosed players like Logan Shaw, Connor Brickley, and Jonathan Racine were moved on from in favor of more skilled options like Michael Sgarbossa, Colton Sceviour, Jonathan Marchessault, and others.
There has been a noticeable shift within the organization and around the league towards players that have both skill and grit rather than only the latter, so while it’s safe to say there will be a spot for Hawryluk sooner than later, he’s not too concerned about it.
“It’s exciting to think about, but it’s a process,” says Hawryluk of the thought that he may get the call to the NHL one day. “I’m just focusing on one game at a time, that’s all I can focus on. Obviously it would be a dream to get that call one day, but for now I’m just focused on doing whatever I can out there to help [the Thunderbirds] win.”
Hard work has gotten the pesky forward to where he is now, and there’s no reason why it won’t take him further even further.
“I’m going out there and giving it my all every night and hoping someone will notice,” he says.
The saying goes that you only get out what you put in, and so far, Hawryluk has certainly put a lot in.