Canucks' belief in Jayce Hawryluk may be what his winding career needs

Vancouver Canucks' Micheal Ferland, right, checks Florida Panthers' Jayce Hawryluk during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, on Monday October 28, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER – Six years after the 2014 NHL Draft, the Vancouver Canucks finally chased down Jayce Hawryluk. But six years later, the 24-year-old is still chasing his National Hockey League career.

The salary-cap-squeezed Canucks signed Hawryluk and incumbent 24-year-old centre Adam Gaudette to bargain contracts on Monday, bringing the number of “NHL” forwards on the payroll to 16.

With a two-way, free-agent deal that will pay him $800,000 U.S. in the NHL and $200,000 in the minors, Hawryluk is listed as a non-roster player by the salary-cap bookkeepers at CapFriendly.com. Were he on the NHL roster, the Canucks’ cap space would be down to $248,000 after Gaudette, 24, accepted a one-year, one-way deal for $950,000.

The Canucks will need several salaries in that range to get under the $81.5-million cap whenever next season starts. But to help the team financially, Hawryluk must be able to help on the ice.

He’s only a bargain if he plays for the Canucks, and in four professional seasons since the Florida Panthers drafted him two picks into the second round in 2018, the combative depth forward from Roblin, Man., has logged just 68 NHL games.

But the best stretch of 11 came at the end of last season after the Ottawa Senators claimed him on waivers from Florida on Feb. 17.

His two goals and seven points – and 33 hits – weren’t enough for the Senators to extend Hawryluk a qualifying offer, but it was enough for the Canucks to see again the promise general manager Jim Benning saw in the former Brandon Wheat King ahead of the 2018 draft.

That was Benning’s first draft in charge of the Canucks and, after an impressive showing by Hawryluk at the pre-draft combine, Vancouver rated him highly. But the Panthers selected him four spots before the Canucks’ second-round pick, and Benning chose goalie Thatcher Demko.

Demko’s progression towards becoming an NHL starter has been remarkably consistent and linear since then. Hawryluk’s path has looked like the Sea-to-Sky Highway – all turns and changes in elevation.

But what has benefitted Demko should now help Hawryluk: a team that believes in him.

“They’ve expressed interest in me from the very beginning of my career, and they’ve continued to express that throughout,” Hawryluk told reporters in a video call. “That was a big point in me coming there: they wanted me there and they’ve seen that potential in me.

“It’s a journey, and not every journey is a straight path. There’s ups and downs, and I’ve definitely had some ups and downs in my career. I can’t sit here and tell you I haven’t. I feel that I’m at a point in my life right now where my game is the best it’s ever been, and it’s continuing to get better.”

With his modest success in Ottawa, where he averaged 13 minutes of nightly playing time, Hawryluk should have felt excited when the season ended. Instead, he felt terror. He was one of five Senators – and the first NHL player to speak publicly about it – who contracted COVID-19 during a road trip to California just before the league shut down on March 12.

A month later, Hawryluk, who quarantined at his parents’ house in Roblin before moving back to his own home in Brandon, discussed his condition with the Winnipeg Free Press.

He later told The Athletic that he spoke out about COVID as a warning to others.

“I wanted to show people that anyone is susceptible to getting this illness,” he explained in July. “I’m a professional athlete, I train all the time, I play hockey all the time, I’m in top shape and I still got it. I wanted to try and get the point across that this can happen to anyone.”

Hawryluk said Monday that he has fully recovered from the virus.

“Last year was definitely a crazy year,” he said.

Another unexpected bend in the road.

“I’ve always believed in myself,” Hawryluk said. “I think you have to believe in yourself to become successful at whatever you do. I still hold that belief.

“I don’t think I’ve reached my potential at all. I feel like I’m still young and got a lot left in me, and I’m looking to showing that.”

Before splitting 26 games last year between Ottawa and Florida, where he was frequently a healthy scratch, Hawryluk played 148 games in the minors over the previous three seasons. Two seasons after his draft year, the five-foot-11 right-shot centre amassed 47 goals, 106 points and 101 penalty minutes in 58 games for Brandon in junior.

Canuck coach Travis Green coached against Hawryluk during the player’s rookie season in the Western League.

“They’ve seen potential in me,” Hawryluk said of the Canucks. “They have a great coach; he plays that style of game that I bring. I just thought it was a perfect fit and somewhere I am excited to play.”

Gaudette, the former Hobey Baker Trophy winner who had 12 goals and 33 points in 59 games for the Canucks in his second NHL season, speaks to the media on Tuesday.

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