No one had to tell Zach Boychuk how important this season is for him, for his professional hockey career.
"Absolutely. Last year was a little bit of a setback for me," the Charlotte Checkers forward said. "I still want to be a fulltime NHL player and that's my goal again this year. It's no different."
Boychuk said that just before the Checkers began their season. Then, in Charlotte's 6-1-1 start, with all eight games on the road, he has responded by scoring five goals and adding four assists. He has points in seven of the eight games, and had eight shots on goal in the one game he did not make the scoring sheet.
Boychuk is no longer the teenage prospect who came out of Lethbridge of the Western Hockey League in 2008 as a first-round pick and played in two early NHL games for the Canes in the 2008-2009 season. He turned 23 early this month and has spent most of the past three years in the AHL.
"For a small guy like me, I think maybe a few years in the American Hockey League have been good for me," he said. "I feel like I'm getting stronger. My fitness testing this year went really well. And as a team, we really feel like we can be a contender."
Boychuk has played 72 career NHL games but just 16 with the Canes last season in the final year of his entry-level contract. In July, he signed a one-year, two-way contract with Carolina that pays him $625,000 at the NHL level or $105,000 at the AHL level.
Boychuk was hoping to come into the Canes' preseason training camp and again compete for a roster spot. He never seemed to find favor with former coach Paul Maurice and was hoping things might be different with Kirk Muller as coach, but the NHL lockout ended those plans.
"It hasn't been easy for a lot of guys, especially guys like me who could have used training camp as a new slate with a new coach (Muller) there," he said. "I really wanted to come in and make an impression. Now I have to do that in Charlotte, which is another opportunity in itself with a lot of good players down here.
"You want the lockout to end. But the bright side is you're still playing hockey and still getting better. And we're still making a couple of dollars. It's just good to still be playing hockey."
The NHL lockout has resulted in an enhanced, more competitive AHL, with several young NHL players of note assigned to the league. The Checkers have defenseman Justin Faulk and there are others like him sprinkled through the league's rosters.
"I think it's good, especially for guys like us who are kind of fringe (NHL) players," Boychuk said. "It makes for a good, tough league, and I think a lot of us guys can keep up with those guys."