2015 ROOKIE CAMP: Frozen Royalty’s coverage of the Los Angeles Kings 2015 Rookie Camp continues with a look at right wing prospect Justin Auger, who exceeded expectations in an outstanding first season in professional hockey last year.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — As has been said so often over the decades, professional hockey players are getting bigger, stronger and faster, seemingly every year.
At 6-7, 227 pounds, one might expect the 21-year-old native of Kitchener, Ontario to be a basketball player. Instead, he’s pushing towards a career in the NHL, and his play last season, his first in professional hockey, earned him some rather high praise from his head coach.
“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, who will coach the Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Ontario Reign, this season. “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.”
Unlike first or even second round draft picks who come out of junior or college hockey with sky-high expectations, Auger did not have that lasso around his neck, which may have helped him last season.
“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].”
Auger pointed to the Kings’ 2014 Training Camp as an ignition point towards jumping into the professional ranks.
“I was ready to play,” he said. “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,” he 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.”
As the 2014-15 season wore on, Auger improved his play along the boards, in the corners, and in front of the net.
“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 noted. “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.”
Despite the praise from his head coach about his physical play, Auger indicated that he still has work to do in that regard.
“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.”
Despite his size, Auger is still filling out and learning to use his physical gifts.
“He was a good, physical presence for us,” Stothers noted. “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.”
As Stothers alluded to, Auger exceeded expectations on the scoresheet last season, scoring 13 goals and adding 16 assists for 29 points in 70 regular season games, with +15 plus/minus rating and 59 penalty minutes.
No matter how you slice it, Auger’s first season in professional hockey was outstanding, and what he learned from it has buoyed his efforts towards earning more ice time next season.
“I feel a lot more confident out there, making plays and stuff, putting in my first season in pro [hockey],” 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. It’s just the focus of going through a 76-game season, day in, day out, coming to the rink to work hard.”
Despite the rather glowing assessment, Auger still has work to do.
“[He has to work on] everything,” Stothers noted. “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.”
Stothers also pointed to foot speed and conditioning as aspects of the game that Auger needs to focus on.
“Skating is always [something] to work on, especially being a big guy,” said Auger. “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.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings right wing prospect Justin Auger (right), shown here shooting the puck for the Manchester Monarchs during Game 1 of the 2015 Calder Cup Finals on June 6, 2015. Photo: Blake Gumprecht. Courtesy Manchester Monarchs.
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