When your hockey team has only nine wins by Christmas, it's typically a sign the status quo isn't working.
That was the case for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2009-10, and as a result, the team gradually started giving an extended look to a group of young players which will be counted on to contribute toward any future success the 'Canes enjoy.
Chief among those youngsters is Zach Boychuk, a rookie forward out of the Western Hockey League who was drafted by Carolina with the No. 14 pick in 2008.
Possessing uncanny speed and puck-handling skills, the 20-year-old Boychuk figures to develop into a solid NHL regular for years to come, and he'll only be able to build on the 31 games he spent with the Hurricanes in 2009-10.
However, Boychuk spent the majority of his rookie pro season with the American Hockey League's Albany River Rats and was a solid offensive contributor for Carolina's top affiliate. He finished the regular season with 15 goals and 36 points in 52 AHL contests, and his 5 game-winning goals tied for the Albany team lead.
"I'm not a big guy, and I can't be going around hitting a lot of guys, so I need to beat big defenders in different ways," said the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Boychuk. "I use my speed, especially on the forecheck, to turn over pucks, and once I get those pucks I try to take them to the net or pass off to my linemates."
Boychuk's time in the AHL this season has revealed his gift for creating offensive chances on the rush, an element of his game that he's confident will ultimately be his full-time ticket to the NHL.
It's certainly a strength which stood out to River Rats head coach Jeff Daniels.
"He's a good skater, and he's very creative off the rush," said Daniels. "He's also got a great shot, and he goes to those tough areas in front of the net. He's just a very creative player.
"With any young player, it's easy to do it for one period or one game, but you have to bring it the next night and the next. And that's one thing he's really gotten better at, is just being a consistent player -- not just offensively, but away from the puck, and (being) more responsible defensively."
Daniels and assistant coach Geordie Kinnear consistently stress the importance of defensive responsibilities, even with their forwards, which has blended well with Boychuk's need to develop and improve that side of the game.
Early in the season, Daniels and Kinnear frequently took Boychuk aside and showed him video clips of lapses in his defensive-zone play and areas where the he simply needed to be better.
"I definitely think I've learned a lot on the defensive side of the game this year," Boychuk said. "The coaching staff in Albany really harps on being strong defensively, and that's really helped me."
Boychuk earned the occasional call-up over the first four months of the season -- scoring his first NHL goal against New Jersey Devils legend Martin Brodeur on Feb. 13 -- but did not receive a lengthy NHL opportunity until early March, when his latest summons lasted for the remainder of Carolina's season.
Along with fellow Hurricanes prospects Casey Borer, Drayson Bowman, Jamie McBain, Justin Peters, Bryan Rodney and Jerome Samson -- all of whom also spent late-season time with the big club -- Boychuk was able to appreciate the NHL game and what it takes to succeed there.
"Just being around guys like Rod Brind'Amour and Eric Staal, and the coaches, Paul Maurice and Ron Francis, they have so many things that they can teach you," Boychuk said. "You basically just listen to them. I'm a guy who's got a few tools, but if you don't put it all together, you're not going to be a successful NHL player."
Although speed unquestionably is one of the tools Boychuk brings to the table, he soon learned it also needed some fine-tuning if it was to translate well to the NHL style of play.
"In juniors, you'd get the puck and you could just be skating down the ice and barely moving your feet and you'd still be blowing by guys," Boychuk said. "In the NHL, everybody can skate really well, and everybody is big and strong, so you have to be moving your feet as much as you can."
Throughout sports, you often see stories of teams rushing along their young prospects in the hope -- sometimes desperate -- that they will make a quick impact and lead the major-league team to instant success.
That wasn't the case here. The Hurricanes' rough start to the season -- they were 9-22-6 at the Christmas break -- left them mired near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, and Boychuk says the team's status relative to the playoff race actually helped ease him into the NHL life in a positive way.
"Just being around guys like Rod Brind'Amour and Eric Staal, and the coaches, Paul Maurice and Ron Francis, they have so many things that they can teach you. You basically just listen to them. I'm a guy who's got a few tools, but if you don't put it all together, you're not going to be a successful NHL player." -- Zach Boychuk"For me, I didn't feel the pressure to go out there and score a goal every single night or do too much," he said. "I was basically just trying to learn the game and get better every day.
"If you're in the playoff hunt and you need every single point, there's a lot of pressure, and with pressure young guys tend to make mistakes. I'm lucky that I was put into a situation where there wasn't as much pressure and I could just go out and play."
After Carolina's season finale at Boston on April 10, Boychuk and his fellow call-ups returned to Albany for the Calder Cup playoffs, which the River Rats entered following a second-place finish in the AHL's East Division.
After sweeping Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in four straight in the first round, Albany currently is battling the regular-season AHL champion Hershey Bears, with the winner advancing to the Eastern Conference Final.
"It's been awesome," Boychuk said of suiting up for the River Rats in the playoffs. "To still be playing hockey, that's the main thing. It'd be pretty upsetting if I was at home right now watching everyone else play."
While Daniels enjoyed the luxury of penciling an offensive threat like Boychuk back into his lineup, he also recognized why it was important for Boychuk to return.
"Any time you can participate in the playoffs at any level, just to see the intensity that it takes, the commitment, and being able to bring your game up a level when it's needed, I think it's an eye-opener for everyone," Daniels said. "When the playoffs start, the intensity and pace pick up, and it's always a great learning experience."
Overall, Boychuk, who cited a need to beef up his strength this summer in order to better handle the bigger, stronger NHL defensemen, is happy with his progress this season and thrilled to be part of Carolina's future.
At least on paper, it looks like a promising one.
"They've had a great organization for a very long time," Boychuk said. "To be a part of that organization, especially in a rebuilding mode, to be a big piece of that ... there are some good players up there right now, main fixtures, guys like Eric Staal, Cam Ward and Brandon Sutter. But for the team to really go somewhere, they definitely need their young guys, and I hope that I'll be a big part of that. It's an exciting time."