With more jump in his step, Kris Chucko made a giant leap in his career.
Scoring 28 goals and cracking the 50-point total in his third professional season last year with the Quad City Flames, Chucko showed flashes of what scouts saw from his days with the BCHL’s Salmon Arm SilverBacks.
Scoring touch and his big frame got him drafted by the Flames in the first round, 24th overall in 2004.
But that was before the lockout, when size trumped speed in the NHL.
Speed is what Chucko credits for his breakout season.
“Last year, I was a totally different player, I think, because of my skating. It’s a big difference when you don’t have to worry about trying to keep up,” said Chucko, who suited up at the Saddledome for last night’s pre-season tilt against the Edmonton Oilers.
“You can worry about what you’re doing with the puck instead of like, ‘Holy crap, I have to catch up to that guy.”
You don’t need an education from the University of Minnesota — which Chucko’s got — to see the difference.
“It was an unbelievable improvement,” said Chucko, who turned pro after two years as a Golden Gopher. “And I think I’m faster again this year.”
It’s a new and improved version of the 6-foot-2, 197-pounder taking the ice these days.
Confidence alone had him ripping the puck on net at every opportunity in the minors a year ago.
He figures he fired about 250 shots, which puts him in Jarome Iginla territory in terms of pelting goaltenders with rubber.
“I feel like I probably — and if you ask my coach, too — had a lot of opportunities I should have scored on still,” said Chucko. “The jump I made was a great jump. I think I had 250 shots on net, so I expect to hopefully have more goals than 28. But it was a good year.”
His coach was new Flames assistant Ryan McGill, who has seen firsthand the progress Chucko has made on the ice.
Working with Barry Karn in Minnesota even before the power-skating coach began his relationship with the Flames a few years back, the 23-year-old prospect has put in the hours to make strides.
“It has been a bit of a journey. A lot of hard work,” said Chucko.
“It hasn’t been just because I’m older I’m getting better. I’ve had to work hard.”
Working equally as hard to make an impression and earn time with the veterans, Chucko hopes his effort has been noticed.
“To get to this level, you have to succeed at the level below,” he said. “Last year was a little bit of an example of that. Hopefully it showed them a lot.”
He didn’t make a huge impression in two games with the big club last season with games in Philadelphia and Carolina around the trade deadline. Arriving in Philly on a few hours sleep after playing for Quad City, he suited up for his first NHL contest, then got in a second in consecutive nights before being sent down in time for back-to-back games with the Baby Flames.
“It was a pretty crazy week altogether,” Chucko recalled, admitting he was a little tentative in his first game. “You get stuck in quicksand a couple of times with the puck and you realize even moreso that you’ve got to have your feet moving and be at top speed at all times.”
Now he feels he has that extra gear.