On Oct. 4, 2008, Zach Boychuk celebrated his 19th birthday in Raleigh by signing his three-year, entry-level contract with the Canes. Talk about a big day.
Boychuk was the Canes' first-round draft pick in 2008. Despite hand surgery, he came to training camp, soon was cleared for contact and made his NHL debut, appearing in two early regular-season games for Carolina on a West Coast trip before sent back to the Lethbridge Hurricanes (WHL).
Boychuk's future seemed bright. He had speed, a quick release on his shot and an appealing personality, and it seemed only a matter of time before he was back with the Canes to stay.
Three years later, Boychuk's future with Carolina is more clouded as he enters the final year of that contract. Among those beaten out by Zac Dalpe and Jiri Tlusty for forwards spots in the Canes' training camp, he's now back in Charlotte with the Checkers (AHL) with a new season about to begin.
In an interview during camp, Boychuk was asked if being a first-round pick creates an extra level of pressure that, say, a second-round pick like Dalpe may not feel.
"There's always pressure that comes with being a hockey player," Boychuk said. "For me, the most pressure is from myself. I wanted to be on the team when I was 18 and wanted to be on the team last year, but I'm one of those smaller guys who needed time to develop and time to find my game."
The Canes have not given up on Boychuk. He has played 56 games for Carolina, including 23 last season, and should be back in the Canes' lineup again at some point this season.
But at times, it does seem the Canes have wanted Boychuk to morph into a different type of player. Maybe someone more like Scottie Upshall of the Florida Panthers -- a comparison Boychuk has heard before.
But Boychuk can only be Boychuk. He can't reinvent himself.
"If you're thinking too much out there your legs aren't moving, and if you try to be somebody you aren't it's not going to go well for you," he said. "I just try to play to my strengths and do what I do best. That's speed and getting in on the forecheck."
There was some scuttlebutt Boychuk may have gotten a bit gun-shy last season after a pair of early February games -- first being wiped out on a big hit by Toronto's Colby Armstrong, then being elbowed to the head by Anton Volchenkov of the New Jersey Devils (Volchenkov was suspended three games).
Boychuk disagreed with the "gun-shy" talk, saying, "I had no side effects. I think I played about 84 regular-season games."
Boychuk was sent back to Charlotte on Thursday along with Drayson Bowman, Jerome Samson, Chris Terry, Jon Matsumoto and others as 12 players were assigned to the Checkers. The Canes' camp competition among the young fowards was both intense and tense, and Dalpe's staying, but Boychuk said it didn't damage any friendships.
"We're all really close," he said, smiling. "We cheer each other on. We like to see when guys score and put up numbers. We all want to be together playing at some point."
With the Canes, in the NHL.