Hunter Shinkaruk trained extra hard this past summer to prepare for life after Emerson Etem.
The Medicine Hat duo torched the WHL for a combined 110 goals in 2011-12 - with Etem's 61 goals leading all of major junior hockey.
However, with Etem having turned pro, Shinkaruk has faced increased scrutiny this season as opponents target him for special physical attention.
The Tigers' captain posted a minus-9 rating in the first 10 games in October before erupting this past weekend with nine points in back-to-back wins over Calgary and Regina.
McKeen's correspondent Randy Gorman caught up to Shinkaruk recently to discuss his past and future development - in this his crucial draft season.
McKeen’s: Where did you play your minor hockey?
Shinkaruk: I played in a small community in Calgary called Elbow Park, where we had just 11 guys on the team. My bantam year I played for the Calgary Royals, and had to sit out my midget year with a broken leg.
McKeen’s: Being a late born 1994 player, do you think that extra year of experience in the league will help you, in this your draft year?
Shinkaruk: Yes, definitely, I learned a lot last year, and especially from former first-round Anaheim draftee Emerson Etem. Having the extra season helps refine your game on and off the ice with a maturity level.
McKeen’s: What has it been like going forward without Emerson Etem this season?
Shinkaruk: He battles hard, competes every night, and puts up points. He is also a great role model for kids getting involved in the sport. There is a lot of questions this year whether I can produce without him. I have trained hard throughout this past summer to improve so I can silence those critics. I still keep in contact with Emerson regularly.
McKeen’s: Let’s talk about your international experience and how that has helped your development as a player?
Shinkaruk: It’s an awesome experience, first with the under 17’s, and then the U-18’s. Putting on the maple leaf and representing Team Canada is an incredible thing. I played a couple of roles in those tournaments in both offense and defensive situations which helped me understand positional play better. I can’t say enough about Hockey Canada, which gave me the opportunity to showcase my talent. To play against the best players in the world is great, and you finally get to see what level you can compare yourself with the best.
McKeen’s: How much emphasis or importance do you put on defense in developing a complete game?
Shinkaruk: It’s huge going forward, obviously, to play at the NHL or pro level - that part is very important. I’m working hard on that part of my game. My goal is to be drafted first, and then make an NHL team next season. I think with myself being an offensive guy, that will be a question mark, but you look at a guy like Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes, he worked hard on his defense and the coach put a lot of trust in him and he made the team at his first camp, so that’s my inspiration.
McKeen’s: Does it bother you that lots of scouts are watching you every night?
Shinkaruk: No, not really. All I can do is go out there and compete. I want to show all aspects of my game and help my team win. Individual NHL scouts will form their own thoughts and opinions, and I have no control over that.
McKeen’s: You are considered one of the top 5 players in the WHL this season for the draft, how does that make you feel?
Shinkaruk: It feels good, obviously there’s a lot of great ‘94’s and ‘95’s in this draft. To be thought of in this stage is great. That being said, you can’t rest on your laurels, you have to be ready every game and look to improve as the season goes on.
McKeen’s: Do you pay attention or look at the various rankings throughout the season leading up to the draft?
Shinkaruk: I don’t pay much attention to rankings. I hope to impress the scouts with hard work and a lot of determination. You will go up and down, again that’s something I have no control over.
McKeen’s: Is there a player you liked at the NHL level that you wanted to pattern your game after?
Shinkaruk: Well, I would say Sidney Crosby, I know that’s a pretty high comparison, as he’s the best player in the NHL. I mean, he battles hard, and excels at every part of the game. He handles himself well with the media, and is a role model for his team and a leader. That’s what I’m trying to do here, and for any team that drafts me.
McKeen’s: What’s it like playing for the fabled Medicine Hat Tigers and Coach Shaun Clouston?
Shinkaruk: It’s awesome, I was really happy when I was drafted by the Tigers out of bantam. I can’t say enough about the organization, and coach Clouston. They gave me the captaincy at the young age of 17, and put a lot of trust in me so I didn’t want to let them down. It was pretty unbelievable and humbling.
McKeen’s: Did you have any set goals that you wanted to achieve this season?
Shinkaruk: I try to set individual goals going into each season, but I like to keep them to myself for my own motivation. That doesn’t necessarily mean, goals, assists, points. I just want to get better in all areas of the game. On a team basis, I just want to help my team win as much as possible, and of course, get to the Memorial Cup.
McKeen’s: Strength and conditioning are important off the ice, how important is developing core strength in helping you get stronger and better balanced on the ice?
Shinkaruk: It’s huge, it’s something coming into the season I had to work on. I work with my trainer Andy O’Brien really hard, for example handling bigger players like David Musil of the Vancouver Giants down low every night is tough, but getting stronger helps in puck and physical battles with bigger players.