|Augusta Lynx forward Matt Auffrey has 18 goals and
16 assists in 50 games so far this season.
In 2002, he made his first step toward professional hockey by playing for the U.S. National Under-18 team, alongside the likes of Colorado Avalanche center T.J. Hensick and Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter.
After two seasons there, Auffrey headed to the University of Wisconsin. In his first season with the Badgers (2004-05), he put up eight points in 25 games. After appearing in one game in 2005-06, Auffrey decided that college hockey wasn't for him. He wanted more ice time and more games, so he joined the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League.
"I decided to try to get an education and play hockey at the same time," said Auffrey, who had 24 goals and 26 assists in his first season with Kitchener. "I liked that route. I don't think anyone would not want an education. That's the step I thought was right at the time for me. I saw the picture of playing 40 games instead of 70, and maybe getting a little more ice time in the OHL. It kind of made me think about it. I made the decision (to leave school). It kind of gave me an advantage going into this league."
After three full seasons in the OHL, the 22-year-old Auffrey has arrived on the ECHL scene in impressive fashion. The 6-foot-3, 203-pound right wing is Augusta's third-leading scorer with 18 goals and 16 assists in 50 games. His play has helped the Lynx remain in the thick of a tight postseason race.
"You don't find many players that go from college back to major juniors," Augusta coach Bob Ferguson said. "At that point in his development, I think he thought that was the thing to do. He's played for some great teams. You can tell he's had some good coaching up to this point. I think his game is coming together. I think he definitely has a future."
Not everything was roses from the beginning, though. While his ability to produce offense was never a problem, Ferguson had to work diligently with Auffrey early in the season on his defensive game. According to Ferguson, Auffrey's play in his own zone has since improved by leaps and bounds.
"I've been very happy with the way he's progressed," Ferguson said. "At the start of the year, there were good parts of his game, but not great in everything. He was very good offensively, but he needed to work a little bit on his defensive zone. But he seems to have committed himself to just being a good, solid player in his own end of the ice. He's turned into a pretty complete player for us.
"He's come a long ways," he added. "The first 12-15 games of the year, you could almost categorize him as a defensive liability at times. Right now, he's playing on our top line and playing in key situations. He's just become a lot more responsible. He's come a long way defensively."
Auffrey admitted his defensive play needed work as he adjusted to professional hockey. In the end, he believes the key revolves around simply being smarter in his own zone.
"It was different adjusting from the OHL," Auffrey said. "It's a different style and guys are a lot stronger and smarter in this league. You learn from your mistakes quickly, especially defensively. It's not like you have to re-learn defense, but just maturing and the mental game I think is the biggest part."
Now that Auffrey is further along in the adjustment process, he has quickly become a well-rounded player in Augusta. As long as he continues to produce for the Lynx – and there is nothing to suggest that he won't – one has to believe Auffrey will get a crack with the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League before the end of the season. Portland is the Triple-A affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks, who drafted Auffrey in the sixth round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
"They're very anxious to watch and see how he develops as the year goes on," Ferguson said. "I would have to think that at some point, if he continues to put up the numbers that he's putting up … he's playing as well as some of the other Anaheim prospects that are with us. He's right up there with them, and has better numbers than some of them. He wants to prove a point. He knows this is a big year for him. He's not only matured as a hockey player, but he's matured as a young man. Hopefully he gets his shot."
With his entry-level contract set to expire at the end of the season, Auffrey is trying to showcase his skills for not only the Ducks, but for the rest of the NHL. While he'd love to get a crack with Portland in the near future, the power forward is more concerned with working on his game over the next two months and helping the Lynx reach the Kelly Cup Playoffs.
"It's a goal and it would be a really cool achievement," Auffrey said. "But right now, I'm just trying to concentrate on improving my game. There are four or five guys down here right now who are signed with Portland or Anaheim. If I'm playing well, maybe I'll get a chance up there. It would be fun."
Contact Brian Compton at: email@example.com.