ONTARIO, CA — When you look back at the 1970’s and 80’s, and compare National Hockey League players then to those of the current era, professional hockey players have grown bigger, stronger and faster, and it’s not all that close.
One young NHL prospect who falls into the upper range of the “bigger” and “stronger” categories is 21-year-old right wing Justin Auger, who was selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the fourth round (103rd overall) of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.
At 6’7″, 227-pounds, one might expect the native of Kitchener, Ontario to be a forward for a basketball team. Instead, he’s working towards a career in the NHL, and so far, he’s exceeding expectations.
Last season, his first in professional hockey, Auger scored 13 goals and added 16 assists for 29 points, with a plus-15 plus-minus rating and 59 penalty minutes in 70 regular season games. He also helped lead the American Hockey League’s Manchester Monarchs to the 2015 Calder Cup Championship.
“Augs had a great season for us,” said then-Manchester Monarchs head coach Mike Stothers. “I know that the team he played on the season before, Guelph [Storm of the Ontario Hockey League], had good team success and went to the Memorial Cup [Final].”
“For Justin himself, it was a long year in that he didn’t see as much ice time as he wanted to,” added Stothers, stayed with the organization to coach the Kings’ new AHL affiliate, the Ontario Reign. “But you know what? When he started from day one with us, he seemed like a whole different personality. He enjoyed coming to the rink every day. He really pushed himself.”
One reason for Auger’s impressive performance was that there were no expectations for him going in—no one expected him to provide much in terms of offense.
“There wasn’t as much onus placed on Augs,” said Stothers. “There weren’t as many expectations for him to contribute on the scoresheet. But now it’s how do we best use a guy of his size, with his reach, and with his strength? Augs was terrific [last season].”
“I was ready to play,” Auger noted. “I worked hard last summer. I came into camp knowing where I wanted to play, knowing that I wanted to be in Manchester, and I had a good camp. They were impressed with how far I came from the past season. [It was] just hard work, a hard compete level. I just made a spot for myself on the team.”
“I was very fortunate that there was a spot there for me, and I made a spot there at training camp last year,” Auger added. “I worked hard throughout the season. It was a really good year for me, and it was a really good year for the team, capping it off with a championship—there’s no better end goal than that one for the team.”
Stothers indicated that Auger got better, in terms of the physical aspects of the game, as the 2014-15 season wore on.
“I think, as you saw the season go [on], this guy really used his body and figured out how to use that big frame of his to protect pucks and take pucks to the net,” Stothers observed. “He was a tough man to play against, and at the end of the night, the end of the season, and through the playoffs, the opposition, trying to play against a Justin Auger—contain him along the boards, get him out of the blue paint in front of the net—that just wears you out.”
“He was a good, physical presence for us,” Stothers added. “He showed some flashes of some offensive finish, and as usual, with a bigger guy—I hope he’s stopped growing. I’m assuming he stopped growing. He’ll fill out, and he’s a very strong man right now. But he’s still got some maturing to do, so there’s no limit to what Augs can do.”
This season, Auger is with the Reign, as the Kings swapped their AHL and ECHL affiliates, with the Monarchs switching to the ECHL.
In 47 games with the Reign this season, Auger has continued to contribute while playing in a mostly checking role, scoring 11 goals and contributing ten assists for 21 points, with a plus-11 plus-minus rating and 47 penalty minutes.
The Kings have asked Auger to continue to work on his play along the boards and in the corners, along with other aspects of his game.
“That’s one of the big points they’re always talking about, especially with the development team—wall play, working the puck down low,” said Auger. “Every time we’re with them, it seems like we’re working on wall play, puck protection, being up on the boards, and not letting guys take the puck off you along the boards. Every practice, it seems like we’re working on that kind of stuff. It’s an ongoing thing. You’re never [become] as good as you can be on that. There’s always going to be a higher ceiling to strive for.”
“[He has to work on] everything,” said Stothers. “There’s nobody who doesn’t have everything to work on. He’s another guy where it’s a matter of bringing it every day. He needs to have the confidence to know that he can score, and believe that he can score.”
Foot speed and conditioning are also parts of the game that Auger needs to improve upon.
“Skating is always [something] to work on, especially being a big guy,” he said. “I’m still figuring out my body. I’m still working, figuring out how to use all my limbs to their greatest advantage, using my reach—just improving on [parts of my game] that I’ve been working on—puck protection is always something you need to work on, [along with] being out there every day and putting in maximum effort every single day.”
“He’s not quite the perfect specimen,” said Stothers. “But we’re working on him.”
Although he still has work to do, Auger’s stock has risen since his draft day.
“I feel a lot more confident out there, making plays and stuff,” he said. “You’re playing against guys [who are a lot older]. You’re not playing junior-[age players] anymore. 20-year-olds aren’t the [oldest] you’re going to play against anymore. You’re playing against 30-year-olds, guys who’ve played ten years pro. It’s going through that, and having the confidence now to know that I can be out there, playing with these guys.”