August 16, 2012 9:25 AM
For as many unique challenges that Justin Shugg faced in his rookie season, the end result is coming to be very familiar.
The 20-year-old rookie forward completed a “roller coaster” season of injuries, recalls and reassignments by winning a Kelly Cup with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades after the conclusion of the Checkers’ season. The championship was the third in four years for Shugg, who, in the year he didn’t win the Canadian junior league’s Memorial Cup, made it all the way to the final game.
“It’s pretty crazy when you look back at it,” he admitted.
Indeed, it’s a track record few can match, though a few of his Florida teammates (John Muse, who previously won two NCAA titles with Boston College, and David Rutherford, who has also has a Memorial Cup and a Central Hockey League title under his belt) can certainly stake a claim.
Together, those three, who all remain in the Carolina Hurricanes/Checkers organization going into next season, represent a culture of confidence that is proving to be significant in their development as players and as people.
“I think of myself as a winner now,” said Shugg, who scored 12 points (7g, 5a) in 11 playoff games for the Everblades. “No matter where I go and no matter where we are in the standings, I’ll always have that belief that we’ll be able to win a championship.”
The subtle signs of success are starting to become familiar for Shugg, who, having only turned 20 in late December, was among the youngest players at the professional level last season. Though he finished the AHL season playing a key role for the Checkers until they narrowly missed the playoffs, he noticed them right away upon returning to the ECHL in time for the Everblades’ second-round, series-clinching game against Elmira.
“It reminded me of the atmosphere in Windsor,” said Shugg, referring to the site of his two Memorial Cup wins. “Anyone could talk to anyone and there were no cliques in the room - everyone was on the same page. There was that vibe where we talked about how we could win and how we were going to win.”
To end the season as he’s become accustomed to was important for Shugg, who endured some hardships along the way. Not knowing what to expect heading into his first pro campaign, the Hurricanes cut their fourth-round choice in the 2010 draft sooner than he would have liked. He then had the same experience in Charlotte despite leading the team with three points (2g, 1a) over the course of its two preseason games.
Despite that disappointment, he hit the ground running in Florida, earning the league’s Player of the Week honors in late October, before earning his first recall soon after. However, he found the initial adjustment to the AHL difficult, going scoreless in his first eight games before a pair of injuries kept him out for the better part of three months. When he returned, shuffling between Charlotte and Florida only added stress.
“Mentally is where the battle was for me,” he said. “It was pretty tough to find a groove.”
But he did, particularly through one stretch in February and March during which he scored eight points (4g, 4a) in 12 games and emerged as one of the team’s more skilled finishers. Since that attribute was never in doubt – he averaged 40 goals during his final two seasons of junior hockey – it was the development of his all-around game that earned him positive reviews from coaches and management.
“I felt like once I got over that hump and got comfortable with the guys that I could really be myself and play the way I can with confidence,” he said. “I felt like I was able to show the Canes organization and the hockey world that I’m a versatile player that can play on both sides of the puck, and I think (the Hurricanes) think that I excelled and that I can be a top six guy in the NHL someday.”
That positive feedback, along with another championship, has Shugg anxious to begin his second professional season – one that could see him emerge as a significant scoring threat. Aside from a few fishing trips and a long road trip that took him through Colorado, Utah and Las Vegas, he’s been preparing to do just that, training in his home of Niagara Falls, Ontario, with a handful of players, including New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi, that also had long playoff runs.
He hopes the results will make him both stronger both physically and mentally heading into next season. To hear his update, it sounds as though things are going well.
“I’m in a good place right now,” he said.