Vancouver Canucks prospect Kellan Tochkin is well aware that this preseason is a pivotal juncture in his career.
The 20-year-old right winger from Abbotsford still has one more year of junior eligibility remaining, and he could be sent back to the Western Hockey League’s Medicine Hat Tigers, with whom he finished out last season.
But this is also the first year Tochkin is eligible to turn pro in the Canucks’ minor league system, and that’s the goal he’s set for himself this fall.
“Ideally, I’d love to be playing in Chicago (with the Wolves, Vancouver’s new AHL affiliate), but Medicine Hat is a great town,” Tochkin said during a few minutes of downtime during the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton on Monday.
“They haven’t made it clear to me yet where I’m going. But obviously this is a huge, huge camp for me, especially with it being my 20-year-old year.”
To that end, Tochkin put in a major sweat investment over the summer, making the drive to Vancouver to work out under the supervision of the Canucks’ staff. He also worked with a power skating coach – foot speed has always been the biggest knock on the supremely skilled forward.
“Last summer was really good too – I lost a lot of weight,” said Tochkin, who is listed at 5’9″, 179 pounds. “This summer I maintained that, but I tried to put on a little bit of muscle. I gained about six or seven pretty good pounds.
“Hopefully it’s really evident, the work I’ve put in this summer.”
Tochkin was a scratch for the Canucks’ Young Stars tourney opener against the Edmonton Oilers prospect on Sunday, but he made the most of his opportunity to get into the lineup against the Calgary Flames on Monday.
Tochkin opened the scoring at 2:26 of the first period, tipping a shot past Flames goalie Joni Ortio. In the third period, he was stopped by Ortio on a breakaway, but he was on the ice when Canucks teammate Nathan Longpre tied the game 3-3 with 15 seconds left in regulation.
The Canucks went on to win 4-3 on Antoine Roussel’s goal in overtime, and in the aftermath, Tochkin’s play earned plaudits from new Chicago Wolves bench boss Craig MacTavish.
Tochkin has overcome plenty of adversity to get to this point in his hockey career. As a 17-year-old, he led all WHL rookies in scoring, but was bypassed in the NHL entry draft. A month later, after impressing the Canucks during a prospects camp, Tochkin inked a three-year free agent deal with his home-province team.
Tochkin has averaged close to a point per game in each of his three WHL seasons. He was involved in a trade midway through the 2010-11 campaign, going from the Everett Silvertips to Medicine Hat. He helped the Tigers make a run to the WHL’s Eastern Conference final, where they lost to the Kootenay Ice.
Tochkin, who grew up idolizing former Tigers star and Canucks icon Trevor Linden, enjoyed playing in one of Canada’s old-school junior hockey towns.
“It’s a small, tight-knit community, and they love their hockey,” he said. “You really get that junior hockey experience playing in Medicine Hat. And it was nice being able to wake up and go to Tim Horton’s.”
ORTIO BOUNCES BACK
From the Flames’ end of things, goalie Ortio’s performance against the Canucks on Monday was encouraging.
On Sunday, the youngster from Finland – projected to be the Abbotsford Heat’s backup netminder this season – was torched for six goals on 23 shots in a 6-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks prospects.
Against the Canucks, Ortio turned aside 38 of 42 pucks.
“Ortio performed better,” Heat head coach Troy Ward analyzed. “The defence let him down in moments of truth.”
FLAMES FINISH UP AGAINST OILERS
The Flames’ final game at the Penticton tourney is a mini Battle of Alberta. The Calgary prospects take on their Edmonton Oilers counterparts on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., South Okanagan Events Centre) before heading back to Calgary for main camp.
Tochkin and the Canucks have two more games remaining – Wednesday against San Jose (4 p.m.) and Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets (11:30 a.m.).