A junior player's draft season is the most important one he's played in to that point. It's the season that determines how close to reality his dream of playing in the NHL actually is.
Ideally, a player going through his draft season wants as much ice time as possible to showcase his skills. At the same time, however, with hockey being a team sport, winning games and -- hopefully -- championships also is important.
That's the situation in which Windsor Spitfires left wing Justin Shugg
found himself. He could be fifth banana on an all-star caliber team that featured top-rated draft candidates like Taylor Hall and Cam Fowler
, as well as NHL draft picks like Ryan Ellis
, Adam Henrique
, Greg Nemisz
and Dale Mitchell
. Or he could lobby for a trade to a team that would give him more ice time, but might not have the same kind of success.
"It definitely ran through my head during the year," Shugg told NHL.com. "At the beginning of the year they gave me the opportunity to be a top-six guy, and coming down the stretch we traded for guys, and I was thinking what if these guys take my role. I haven't proven to my coaches I'm a goal scorer in this league, I haven't put up any numbers where they can really lean on me and ask me to score goals or do a certain role. It was definitely in the back of my head."
He decided to stay, and while he might not have received the attention or ice time he could have some other place, he can take solace in being on a two-time Memorial Cup champion.
"I played the waiting game and it worked out," Shugg said. "It was a great decision to stay. Maybe my draft stock would have climbed up a bit (playing elsewhere), but maybe I can be a sleeper pick."
After finishing second on the team with 39 goals and 79 points, Shugg likely won't have teams sleeping too long before picking him at the 2010 Entry Draft, June 25-26 in Los Angeles. Shugg is No. 53 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for this year's draft, a nine-spot jump from January's midterm ranking.
"Nemo (Nemisz) didn't score 40, a lot of guys didn't score 40, but Justin did," Windsor coach Bob Boughner told NHL.com. "Does he have a chance to play with great players? Yes. But by the end of the year he was on our first-unit power play ahead of some pretty impressive hockey players. He's a real offensive catalyst for us."
"He had pretty good production this year -- better than pretty good," Chris Edwards, NHL Central Scouting's OHL scout, told NHL.com. "Was he overshadowed? Maybe, by some guys that are getting more attention than him, but he's a real good competitor."
Shugg had the perfect opportunity to showcase his skills during the middle of the season, when the core of the team's offense -- top forwards Hall, Henrique, Nemisz and Richard Panik
, as well as high-scoring defensemen Fowler and Ellis -- left for the World Junior Championship. In a top-line role, he had 6 goals and 10 points 11 games; when the top players came back, Shugg didn't stop scoring. In his final 27 games, he had 20 goals and 36 points, even though his ice time went down. He didn't complain, however.
"It was all about the team. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the team success," Shugg said. "We all had to buy into one thing this year -- we all wanted to end it off by winning the Memorial Cup."
"We joke around that he's the quietest 40-goal scorer in the Ontario Hockey League. This guy, I think, is just so underrated. He just always seems to be in the right position. He's got a great shot, one of the most accurate shots I've seen. … He was huge in our success. When he was putting pucks in the net, our team was doing well.."
-- Windsor defenseman Cam Fowler
Shugg played a major role in that, as well. Playing on a line with Hall and Henrique, he had 7 points in five games as the Spitfires became the first team in 15 years to win back-to-back titles.
And while Shugg might not get the attention he deserves from NHL scouts, his teammates know just how much he meant to their team.
"We joke around that he's the quietest 40-goal scorer in the Ontario Hockey League," Fowler told NHL.com. "This guy, I think, is just so underrated. He just always seems to be in the right position. He's got a great shot, one of the most accurate shots I've seen. … He was huge in our success. When he was putting pucks in the net, our team was doing well."
"He's a guy that if you ever came to our practices, you'd see that this guy has so much skill and he really shows it if you watch his game closely," Hall told NHL.com. "I was fortunate enough to play with him at the Memorial Cup, him and Henrique, and he really helped me so much in that whole experience. He's a guy that if an NHL team drafts him, he'll be a sleeper. He might take a couple years to develop, but he's got some serious skill."
It's the kind of skill Boughner will be counting on next season, as he could lose eight of his top nine regular-season scorers from last season. When Windsor embarks on its quest to become the first-ever three-time Memorial Cup champion next season, Boughner believes Shugg can more than carry the load.
"He's going to be a power-play guy for us next year, he's going to be play in all situations," Boughner said. "He's got a natural gift, his quick release, his shot, his playmaking abilities. He's going to have that chance to be the guy. It's going to be interesting to see how he deals with that responsibility. All good players love to be the guy that's counted on. I expect big things from Justin."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com