LOS ANGELES — At 6-7, 229 pounds, Justin Auger is not the kind of player who one would, at first blush, think of as anything more than a checking forward. But the 22-year-old native of Kitchener, Ontario already has a Calder Cup Championship (2014-15 season with the American Hockey League’s Manchester Monarchs, now the Kings’ ECHL affiliate) and a 19-goal campaign with the AHL’s Ontario Reign last season.
19 goals for a checking forward? As it turns out, the development of the Los Angeles Kings’ fourth round pick (103rd overall) in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft has been, in a word, remarkable.
“Every year, he’s taken steps and he got to that point where there were such pronounced steps that it slowed down,” said Kings Vice President of Hockey Operations and Director of Player Personnel Mike Futa. “That next step, becoming a National Hockey League player, takes a lot of work and that’s where he’s at. He’s working at it.”
Unlike most young players coming out of major junior hockey in Canada, Auger did not play four full seasons. Instead, he went pro after his third season, but not for the reasons you might normally expect.
“He struggled in Windsor and was traded to [the] Guelph [Storm of the Ontario Hockey League],” Futa noted. “He really didn’t have a lot of confidence in junior. He was one of the kids we elected to pull out of junior hockey and turn him pro because he just seemed to have a different outlook on the game and on life in this environment.”
“Our development team took him to another level,” Futa added. “He was part of a championship team in Guelph. Then, he started baby steps [with Manchester]. Mike Stothers, [who was head coach of the Monarchs in 2014-15 and then with the Reign in 2015-16], and our development crew have done an exceptional job at this big shell around him, on the ice and off. I think he’s still scratching the surface on how good he could possibly be. But it’s night and day compared to where he was.”
“He’s gone from a kid whose priority was the cottage to one who’s priority is the gym and doing all the intangibles, and I think you can see how much the [Reign] coaching staff trusts him, being part of that championship team in Manchester, and last year, being a more integral part of the long run they went on and having a successful year.”
Auger chalked all that up to comfort and confidence stemming from being trusted with greater responsibility.
“Every year, you’re getting more comfortable,” he said. “I played in a lot more key situations this [past] year. I got a lot more on the penalty-kill than I’ve ever seen, I got some power play time, and even just more minutes, in general.”
“Being on the ice more often adds confidence,” he added. “You just feel more comfortable out there and you’re willing to make more plays, take some chances, and most of time, that ends up paying off.”
Auger’s biggest priority for improvement is quickness and speed.
“One thing I’ve been working on is my speed,” he said. “When you’re a big guy it’s tough to get the legs going, but that’s one thing I’ve always been told that I need to work on and it’s something I’ve always known that I’ve needed to work on. It’s those first three steps and getting out of the hole quicker.”
“I think the biggest thing for him is not so much his speed when he gets going,” said Futa. “It’s that quickness in his game, the quickness to adjust, and maybe have another gear in his game that’ll give him a chance to be successful at the next level.”
Auger’s off-season workout regimen is focused on…you guessed it…speed and quickness.
“We have a skating coach in L.A. we’ve been working with, and even off-ice stuff, like the quick feet stuff you do in the gym and the off-ice speed development,” said Auger. “Even this summer, I’ve been working a lot on it to improve for next season.”
“I’ve talked to [Kings strength and conditioning coach] Matt Price a little bit about it,” added Auger. “Not many teams have a guy who’s 6-7, 230 pounds. He said that he doesn’t think that I’m going to run into a problem where [I’m] not strong enough. What [I] need to work on is getting quicker.”
After one look at Auger, many assume that he must be the tough guy-type, one who is looked upon, first and foremost, to fight to protect his teammates and play with a mean streak, with contributing on the score sheet being a lower priority.
“Anytime you’re that big, there’s an expectation that you have to play a certain way, you have to fight and you have to be exceptionally mean,” Futa observed. “I think that’s not the way the game is played anymore. You can still play hard and play an aggressive style without being expected to fight because you’re a big guy. What you have to do is learn to compete on a consistent basis.”
“When you’re that big, there’s an expectation that you’re there to help your teammates and just to play hard—to not play with any fear in your game, and that’s an area where Justin has really come a long way,” Futa added.
In two seasons in the AHL, Auger has shown that he can do a lot more than be a pugilist on skates. Instead, he has focused on using his size and strength to protect pucks, win loose puck battles and fight his way to the front of opposing team’s nets.
“That comes with the territory of being a big guy,” Auger noted. “You’re expected to go to the net and it’s one place that I thrive at. That’s really where I’m going to make a living, and that’s banging away at those loose pucks and using my size to my advantage, finishing those plays off when I get the opportunity.”
Auger is one of the Kings’ prospects that has taken full advantage of working with the development staff.
“Those guys put in countless hours with us and it’s a huge advantage to [make good use] of that time they put in,” he said. “Everything from your skating, to your shot, to your quick feet, to keeping your head up while you’re playing, they’re going to help you get better, no matter what you’re doing,”
“I tried to take advantage of them as much as I possibly could,” he added. “I mean, why wouldn’t you? If you have access to guys who have that much NHL experience—they’ve gone through it all. They know what it takes. Anything you can learn from those guys is going to make you a better player.”
Auger also credited Stothers for much of his improvement.
“A big part of it is playing under [Stothers],” Auger noted. “He’s given me the confidence to go out there. If you make a mistake, you’re still going to get another shift. He’s going to give you a chance. Just having him on your side—he’s been a great coach for two years. He’s all I could’ve asked for in my rookie season [in the AHL], and again this year. Once you build up trust, he starts putting you in bigger roles, like late-in-the-game situations, something I never really saw that much in junior.”
“I enjoy being out on the ice in the last minute, defensively, trying to keep [the opposing team] from scoring to tie it up, or something like that,” Auger added. “It’s a key situation I haven’t seen much before and he builds up the trust and confidence in you to be out there in that situation.”
Auger’s great leaps and bounds in his development resulted in him being trusted with greater responsibilities with the Reign last season, not to mention that he is now being looked at as someone who could provide a little offense at the NHL level down the road.
“Anytime someone shows that kind of improvement, it’s great,” said Futa. “You have to define yourself as a National Hockey League player with assets. I don’t think he’s ever going to be a guy who scores first and checks second. But the fact that his stick, his release, and his ability to protect the puck have improved so much that’s it something that we’ve looked at, as a group, because we went more secondary scoring our of our third and fourth lines at the National Hockey League level. To come up and just be a good checker is not really enough. You’ve got to contribute.”
Maturity and the mental aspects of the game have also been a positive for Auger.
“Another thing is learning how to be a pro and growing up,” he observed. “Then there’s consistency. A big [challenge] for me in Guelph was consistency—not showing up for every game. When you get older, you figure it out. You become a pro and you learn that you’ve got to play 68 games or 76, or whatever you play that year and you have to show up, night in and night out, and be the best player you can be.”
“Another thing is intensity and that comes with consistency,” he added. “It’s every shift, every game. You’re out there, making a difference. You can’t go games without making a difference. It’s a night in, night out process that you keep building up as you become a pro.”
As remarkable as Auger’s ascent up the Kings depth chart might be, he is no different in terms of what lies ahead.
“It would be easy to think, ‘wow. Things have gone great. I’ve got a Calder Cup, I’m a top two-line guy in the American Hockey League,’” Futa noted. “You’ve got to take it to another level. That involves doing things at a higher pace. [Kings head coach] Darryl [Sutter] is adamant that we get quicker and faster—push the pace. We forecheck hard and we’re a possession team. We’re trying to get quicker and we’re trying to produce.”
“[Auger needs to work on] quickness, maintaining speed over the length of a shift, and [developing a] consistent, competitive edge,” Futa added. “But there’s so much that he’s doing well, it’s just got to translate to the next level. We’re thrilled with him. We’re thrilled with where he’s at and how far he’s come. But there’s still work to be done.”
To that end, Auger has been in the gym a lot this summer.
“I’ve been working hard all summer,” he said. “I’ve done some work [at the Kings’ practice facility] with the skating coach, and they keep a close eye on us.”
“I’m going to go [into the Kings training camp in September] and show them how much I’ve improved—assert myself, physically, and do what I can to show them the kind of player I am,” he emphasized. “I’m hoping to go in there and make it really tough for them to send me down. But I know how it works. There’s only so many spots, so many holes to fill. But I’m going to go in there, do my best and make it hard for them to send me down to the minors, if that’s their plan.”
As Auger noted, the Kings have a few roster spots to be filled. But unless something drastic happens, it is highly likely that he will play a third season in the AHL with the Reign, where he would likely play an even larger role, something he’s looking forward to.
“I think, every year, you’re looking for more of a role,” he said. “If I end up back in Ontario, I’m hoping to be a top six guy, night in and night out, seeing some more power play time.”
“I’ll just keep pushing and getter better—score more goals, more penalty-killing time. I’m up for it all.”
LEAD PHOTO: Ontario Reign right wing and Los Angeles Kings prospect Justin Auger, shown here in Game 1 of the second round of the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs against the San Diego Gulls at Citizens Business Bank Arena on May 5, 2016. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
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