LAVAL, QUEBEC — Hudson Elynuik’s career with the Leafs organization could have been over before it began.
As Canadiens defenceman Jarret Tyszka stopped and turned to retrieve a puck in Place Bell’s right-wing offensive zone corner, Elynuik cross-checked him just above the seat of his pants, sending him headfirst into the boards.
It was a violent and dangerous hit. Tyszka, who needed immediate medical attention, laid motionless and was quickly stretchered off the ice and sent to the hospital (the team has since confirmed that he was conscious and moving his limbs when he left).
Elynuik was ejected from the game, after just fourth shifts with his new team.
Two months after signing an AHL contract with the Marlies, nobody would have faulted the Leafs if that was Elynuik’s last game with the organization.
“It’s a mistake on his part. You get a young player that comes in and wants to make an impression, wants to work hard, wants to be physical, and clearly it’s an unacceptable hit. I don’t think he’s got any reputation for being that kind of a player. He’s very remorseful,” Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said after the game.
Photo by David Kirouac/Getty Images
It wasn’t the first time Elynuik’s been the subject of dangerous play, though. He was suspended twice during his five-year career in the WHL (three games for kneeing in 2015 and another three games for charging in 2016).
But the Leafs see something greater in Elynuik, a towering 2016 third-round pick by the Carolina Hurricanes who went unsigned this summer and attended the Kings’ development camp before signing with the Marlies.
And he’s not their first perhaps ambitious project, either.
In spring of 2016, as Justin Holl wrapped up his senior year at the University of Minnesota, he closed out his college career with an uninspiring 13 points in 39 games, fifth among the Gophers’ seven defencemen in points.
A few months later, Holl launched his professional career with the ECHL’s Indy Fuel for their inaugural season.
That year, the Fuel missed the playoffs and Holl posted a modest 34 points in 66 games (27th among ECHL defencemen).
For the Justin Holls of the hockey world — the players who spend four mediocre seasons in the college ranks and don’t post eye-popping numbers in the ECHL — that’s often the end of the road.
After a two-game stint that season with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, the Blackhawks’ affiliate didn’t re-sign him.
Around that time, Mason Marchment, who went undrafted into the OHL, was leaving the OJHL’s Cobourg Cougars (where he wasn’t even one of the team’s leading scorers), to walk onto the Erie Otters. In his only two seasons in the OHL at 19, 20 and 21, Marchment posted just 77 points in 115 games.
For the Mason Marchments of the hockey world — the players who don’t crack a point per game as an overager in the OHL — that’s often the end of the road.
But that wasn’t the case for neither Holl nor Marchment.
In Toronto, a 20-something kid from Sault Ste. Marie was taking over the Marlies’ AHL program and he came calling with an opportunity to join the Leafs at their rookie tournament.
Both did, and they impressed for different reasons (Marchment for the wiry frame and big-time shot they felt they could work with and Holl for his length and effortless stride). The Leafs decided to bring them into the fold on AHL deals and work with them to iron out the kinks in their games.
Last year, Marchment signed an entry-level contract and Holl scored twice in as many games in the NHL. Together, they helped the Marlies win a Calder Cup, with Holl taking on the team’s toughest minutes on the blueline and Marchment anchoring the best fourth line in the league.
This week, at the Leafs’ 2018 iteration of their rookie tournament, the organization went fishing for another Marchment or Holl — and they found Elynuik.
Two days before the hit, after wrapping up their second and final practice before the Rookie Showdown, Keefe pointed to Elynuik, a 6-foot-5 centre who posted 159 points in 135 games (1.18 points per game, matching Kings second-rounder Jaret Anderson-Dolan) in his last two seasons with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs, for his unique package.
He hadn’t seen him play a ton but he’d heard a lot of good things, he liked his junior production, and he had got to know him through development camp and practice sessions.
“He’s got a lot of size to him and we’re excited about having him. I talked to him a couple of times on the ice and he’s keen and he scored a couple of great goals in practice today. Some size like that with the ability to score is a nice combination. Lots to work with there. I’m excited to get a chance to know him,” Keefe said.
He wasn’t about to change his tone, or the organization’s approach with Elynuik, after the hit either.
The Leafs think they can work with Elynuik, and take a 20-year-old who posted 31 goals and 55 assists last year and turn him into something more — something closer to the player Carolina hoped for when they drafted him 74th overall.
“It was unfortunate a player like Elynuik had to leave the game today because I think he has had a good week leading up to this. I actually liked a few of his first shifts that he had. He’s a guy that’s coming into the organization that we’re excited to work with,” Keefe, coaching his fourth rookie tournament for the Leafs, continued after the game.
“I think there’s been enough examples that come through the organization now that players and agents and that sort of thing recognize the opportunity that this organization can bring to players and I think Elynuik is a good example of a guy that went through the draft, was drafted, went unsigned, was looking for an opportunity to get better and we’re looking forward to having a chance to work with him. Hopefully (Marchment and Holl) aren’t the end of the line in terms of players who come through the system.”
Elynuik’s path to Laval via Toronto began with a phone call from a familiar voice.
He was without a contract and “really disappointed” with how things played out with the Hurricanes when Tim Speltz — the 26-year general manager of the Chiefs who became the Leafs’ head amateur scout this summer — rang.
It was Speltz who acquired Elynuik from the Kootenay Ice (who took him in the third round in the 2012 Bantam draft) midway through his rookie season in 2013-14. And it was Speltz who was ready to believe in him once more.
A few days later Speltz called a second time, this time to offer him a contract and set up a meeting.
“He told me it was a great opportunity here and I have to work hard for it and earn a spot on the team but I think I can,” Elynuik said ahead of his controversial debut.
After speaking with his family and his agents Joe Oliver and David Ludwig, Elynuik decided to take it.
That family includes his older brothers Jakson (who played Jr. A hockey) and Campbell (who went to a couple of NHL camps and has scouted for the Regina Pats since 2014).
But it also includes his father, Pat, who knows a thing or two about hockey.
Pat was drafted eighth overall by the Winnipeg Jets in 1986. He posted 50-plus points in five consecutive seasons and played more than 500 games in the NHL. These days, he runs Pat Elynuik Hockey Development out of Calgary, where he works with close to 20 professional players and a bevvy of Jr. A, WHL, Midget Triple-A and Bantam Triple-A players and hosts an annual camp in August. His clients include Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz, Cale Makar, Josh Morrissey, Morgan Klimchuck, Nick Merkley and Leafs prospect Ian Scott.
While Pat retired from his own professional career the year his youngest son was born, he has always been Hudson’s hero.
“It’s pretty special to have a dad that has played in the NHL. He’s always there for you, he’s teaching you things, I’m definitely really lucky to have him. He has been my idol my whole life, I lean on him for a lot of things and he’s always got the best advice. This week, he just said work your hardest. Every coach and GM and scout is looking for the hardest worker and that stands out the most,” Hudson said of his dad, who coached him growing up and who he skates with for most of the summer. “He’s a hockey guy, he knows what it takes, so he gives me a hard time but there’s a lot of support.”
That mentorship included helping Hudson change his perspective from bitterness over going unsigned with Carolina into thankfulness for the camps he was able to attend with the Hurricanes and the stint he got with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers a year and a half ago.
It was a matter of timing, and circumstance, he told his son.
“He had really good development and progress but when it was time to be part of the organization the organization was in turmoil, new owners, Ron Francis and a number of staff left the organization. I think Hudson just got caught in all that turnover. Any time a new manager comes in, he didn’t really know who Hudson was or what his potential was. And then on the other side of things, Carolina they’ve struggled for a number of years and they’ve added up a lot of draft picks so there’s a lot of really good quality players in the organization. It was just one of those things that wasn’t a good fit,” Pat told The Athletic.
Photo by Jaylynn Nash/Getty Images
Pat also convinced Hudson that Toronto was a natural fit.
“He’s going into an organization that not a lot of people know of him. You have to be all ears and eyes and be very coachable. The one area that was really, really important to him when he had his meeting with Tim Speltz was all of the resources that Toronto has to offer, whether it’s in their minor system, skill development, or nutrition. He’s excited to be able to access some of those resources and it’s such a competitive game today that any edge that you can take advantage of, that’s what he wants to do,” Pat added.
Pat, 50, takes a very specific approach to his skills sessions where he teaches one NHL skill at a time and works backwards with it in practices to develop that skill in chunks for his players. The Leafs share his mentality. Over the years, Hudson has taken it upon himself to train himself that way too.
“He’s very, very motivated when things didn’t work out with Carolina so he has taken his development into his own hands and he’s kind of like his own skills coach. I help him out as much as I can but he has spent a lot of time on his quickness, on his skating, and for a big guy they don’t give him credit enough for his skating,” Pat said. “Growing into that 6-foot-5 body is a little bit of a challenge but with bigger players you just have to be more patient for their development. Hudson’s a player that has very good hockey sense with the puck to make a play and he’s extremely strong down low and in front of the net. Hopefully things come together. He’s just a young guy looking to prove himself. He’s so honoured to be a part of the Toronto organization and he just wants to fit in wherever he can and earn a role. With enough repetition and enough keywords, over time you can develop the quickness and speed of the skills.”
Hudson had also attended the Leafs’ combine ahead of the 2016 draft. He knew they’d always had interest in him, knew Marlies Andrew Nielsen and Adam Brooks, and spent last year playing in Spokane with 2018 Leafs draftee Filip Kral and rookie tournament invitee Eli Zummack. He also saw an AHL team, fresh off a Calder Cup victory, in need of depth at his position.
“It definitely puts a little fire in you not to sign with the team that drafted you. But there’s no place I’d rather be than here. I saw the opportunity at centre. A lot of NHL teams want big centres so I’m going to provide that two-way game and make my way on the Marlies this year. It was a decision that was made. There’s no looking back now. I think I can step into the pro role right away and make a name for myself the first few games,” he said, not knowing what was to come.
Zummack, who played with Elynuik for two seasons and stands a full eight inches below him at 5-foot-9, knows firsthand what that impact might look like.
“He has really improved as a player and as a person. He brought a lot to the table. He’s a super good player and a good person too. Just the way that he moves and his skill, especially being that big, is really impressive,” Zummack said.
So does Kral, a scrawny 6-foot-1 defenceman who had to defend Elynuik in practice but also got to play with him on the same power play unit.
“He’s a big player, he has a great shot, he’s good on defence, and he’s even better on offence. He’s just a really good player. He was a key player for us,” Kral said.
On phone call, Spokane head coach Dan Lambert describes Elynuik as if he were an enigma.
Projects aren’t supposed to come without warts. For everything that blows away the Leafs and Lambert (who joined Spokane last season after serving as an assistant with the Buffalo Sabres and a head coach with the Rochester Americans), there’s also hesitation.
Elynuik’s that rare player who’s the biggest on the ice and still one of the best skaters… but he doesn’t always use it.
“Hudson is a fantastic skater. I think what’s maybe held him back a little bit is the fact that he doesn’t always do it,” Lambert explained. “And I think when you’re that big at times at the lower levels, you don’t need to move your feet because you can just do it with your ability and your ability to stickhandle and protect the puck. Ultimately, that may have hurt him but in saying that, he has the ability to move.”
He’s a good kid… but he’s got bad body language.
“He was liked by his teammates but at times he’s got to work on his body language. But it’s not from a bad place. He’s a very good kid and he’s a player that you know has a lot of ability and as a coach you want that to come out. He took positive strides both on and off the ice so that was very positive for me,” Lambert continued.
Dr. James Werner, Elynuik’s strength and conditioning coach and chiropractor, shares the same kind of ambiguity when he talks about Elynuik. After working in the collegiate world, Werner joined Crash Conditioning, who’ve worked with everyone from Duncan Keith and Jordan Eberle to Justin Schultz and Mike Green.
This summer, he worked closely with Elynuik, who is, in a lot of ways, a freak — right down to his body composition.
“It definitely changes my approach a fair bit, working with a kid who is 6-foot-5. Long torso, can’t have him doing quite exactly the same thing as a guy who is 5-foot-9 so we modify a few things in the gym to fit his needs but ultimately Crash has done a great job basing what we do off of movement so we just try at the end of the day to help him move better within himself and that’s what he has shown over the course of the last year and a bit since I’ve been here,” Werner said on Monday afternoon.
“He’s great from a joint perspective. Everything moves really well and that’s always something you’re concerned about – big guys usually don’t have that. And his coordination is surprisingly near the top so when he wants to turn it on he’s one of the highest jumpers in the room and one of the biggest force producing guys. This year he has shown a bit more determination day-in and day-out so when he does that you can see what he brings to the table.”
The problem is, he hasn’t always shown it like he did this summer.
It took the motivation of no contract, and then the excitement of a new one, to get Elynuik in the gym every day, according to Werner.
“Hudosn’s a big body guy who has a lot of skill. He walked in here at around 185 and walked out of here at around 200 so it definitely speaks to what he’s capable of doing and we’d just like to see it. Hopefully he brings it in Toronto,” Werner said.
“It’s usually not easy for a guy to go from 185 to 200, especially when you’re that big and have a history of being a hard gainer. That shows a lot on his end of his commitment in wanting to make that next step to that next level. Hudson is a great kid who has a huge upside. He is a big body who can move and produce force with the best of our athletes. Given his body type he needs to continue to put in work to maintain size and strength. He has the attributes to succeed at the pro level.”
Once Elynuik began to feel that progress, he didn’t want to look back.
“Being a bigger guy, you’ve got to have a lot of strength in the corners and be able to get to the front of the net. I tried to improve my speed and my overall two-way game. That’s what the NHL is these days,” he said of his summer.
It’s why the Leafs are less concerned with the buts than they are with what Elynuik might be if they can work with him.
Lambert is too. He doesn’t want to confuse efforts to challenge Elynuik with a lack of belief in his ability. Last season, he used Elynuik heavily at 5-on-5 and on both of the top power play and penalty kill units.
“As a 20-year-old, when you have as much ability as Hudson does you’re relied upon and he really made the best of those situations. He was a big reason why we ended up with 42 wins,” Lambert said. “He had a very good season for us and I thought his game took a lot of strides in the right direction. He’s a young man that has tons of potential and I think that whenever you’re 6-foot-5 and you can skate and make plays and he’s got all of that ability, a team decided to take a chance on him and I think he probably earned that.”
Elynuik’s unique tools could help him develop further than most expect out of a player his age — just like Marchment did.
“Often, when players get picked, those organizations have expectations and if a player doesn’t meet them it can go sideways. At the end of the day, what’s important is Hudson moving forward,” Lambert concluded. “I don’t know many good junior players that don’t go through some sort of a learning curve. Typically, it’s their attitude and their work ethic that is going to determine how quickly and how slowly that process happens. With Hudson, the fact that he was given this opportunity with Toronto should really drive him to be the best that he can be. I think it’s great that the Marlies or their ECHL team is going to give him an opportunity and what he does with it is in his hands now.”
While he didn’t make the most of it in Laval, the Leafs are prepared to work with him toward a second chance.