The first rule when talking about Justin Auger: make sure he’s not towering over you.
“Well, considering he’s standing right over your shoulder, I should probably be pretty complementary of Augs,” Ontario Head Coach Mike Stothers said. “He’s only about six-foot-nine.”
On skates, perhaps. In real life, Auger is “only” six-foot-seven, and for a 20-year-old who made his professional debut a season ago, he admirably used his size to his benefit. Serving as a physical contributor and puck protector who impressively showed the ability to finish through stretches of the season, Auger admirably put together his instruction over the prior summer into a neat package that paid dividends in what developed into a banner year – literally – for the Manchester Monarchs.
Year-over-year, he was among the most developed returnees at last year’s Rookie Camp and prospect games against Arizona, and with a 13-goal, 29-point rookie AHL season in tow, returned to Los Angeles as a seasoned Rookie Camp veteran – if such a thing exists – and has carried himself well over the past week’s on-ice sessions.
One of this year’s directives is to improve in all facets of his game, including, partly, his footspeed.
“Obviously skating, skating is always a part to work on, especially being a big guy,” he said. “I’m still figuring out my body. I’m still working to figure out how to use all my limbs to their greatest advantage and using my reach. Just improving on parts that I’ve been working on and improving. Puck protection is always something that you need to work on. Just being out there every day and putting in a maximum effort every single day.”
There’s the natural progression associated with maturing and reaching adulthood, and there’s the accelerated progression that comes from being coachable, not cutting corners, and putting the development staff’s directives into practice.
“Augs had a great season for us,” Stothers said. “I know the season before, the team he played on, had good team success, went to the Memorial Cup. For Justin himself, I think it was a long year in the fact that he didn’t see as much ice time as he wanted to. But, you know what? When he started from Day 1 with us, he seemed like a whole different personality change. I mean, he had enjoyed coming to the rink every day, he really pushed himself, and I think as you saw the season go there, this guy really used his body and figured out how to use that big frame of his to protect pucks, take pucks to the net, and he was a tough man to play against.”
“At the end of the night or at the end of the season, or even through the playoffs, the opposition trying to play against a Justin Auger and contain him along the boards, get him out of the blue paint in front of the net, I mean, that just wears you out. You know what? I thought he was a good physical presence for us. He showed some flashes of some offensive finish, and as usual with a bigger guy, I hope he stopped growing. I’m assuming he’s stopped growing. He’ll fill out, and he’s a very strong man right now, but he’s still got some maturing to do. There’s no limit to what Augs can do.”
Mike Stothers, on whether there’s anything inherent in 20-year-olds that allows them to have the type of success in their first professional season that Auger engineered:
Actually, you never know. Like, there are some guys that come out of junior, and you think they’re just going to hit the floor running, and they struggle. And then there are other guys who you think, ‘They’re going to take some time,’ and they seem to adjust to the pro game. Coming out of junior, it’s a whole different ballgame, and it’s a pro game, and it’s all about away-from-the-puck, and getting that puck back, and maybe some of the higher-end guys that maybe are up in the scoring leaders of junior, you think, ‘oh, they’re going to light it up,’ because they’re not used to getting that puck back if we don’t have it, their positioning in the defensive zone. I think there wasn’t as much onus placed on Augs. There wasn’t as much expectations to contribute on the scoresheet. But now, OK, how do we best use a guy of his size, with his reach and his strength?” And Augs was terrific.
Justin Auger, on whether last season was a good start to his professional career:
Yeah, I was very fortunate that there was a spot there for me and I made a spot there at training camp last year and I worked hard throughout the season and it was a really good year. It was a good year for me, it was a good year for the team and obviously capping it off with a championship. There is no better end goal than that for the team.
Auger, on how he approached rookie camp and training camp last year:
I was just ready to play. I worked hard last summer and came into camp knowing that I wanted to play and knowing that I wanted to be in Manchester. I had a good camp and they were impressed with how far I came from that past season and just hard work and a hard compete level. I just made a spot for myself on the team.
Auger, on how the team is developing his skill along the boards:
That’s one of the big points I was talking about, especially with the development team, is wall play and working the puck down low and stuff. Every time we’re out with them, it seems like we’re working on wall play, puck protection and being up on the boards and not letting guys take the puck off you on the boards and stuff. It seems like we’re working on that kind of stuff and it’s an ongoing thing. You’re never going to get as good as you can be at that. There’s always going to be a higher ceiling to strive for.
Auger, on where his game has progressed most from last season:
I feel a lot more confident out there making plays and stuff. Putting in that first season of play, obviously you’re playing against a lot older guys and it’s not junior anymore. Playing against 20-year-olds isn’t the highest you’re going to play against anymore. Now it’s 30-year-olds, guys who have played 10 years pro and stuff. I’m just going through that and knowing that I have to confidence to go out and play with these guys and just the focus of going through a 78-game season. Day in and day out, coming to work hard at the rink as long as you’re working hard for Stuttsy, he’s happy with you. And as long as you come to the rink ready to work hard and compete every day, it’s going to be a good day.
Auger, on skating with Ryan Horvat and Adrian Kempe at Rookie Camp:
Obviously we have some chemistry from last year. Me and Horvie have been together for four or five years now and we saw Kemps for a good month at the end of the season there. It feels good to have some familiar faces out on your line. We’re kind of in a leadership role out there. We’re trying to do as good as we can to go out there and we’re going out there first to do the drills and we’re just trying to present it to the younger guys the best way. Really, we’re trying to set a good example. We’re doing all the little things that Stuttsy appreciates and that he notices and we’re trying to get it into all the younger guys’ games as well.