Justin Shugg considers himself a playmaker.
"My shot is not a definite advantage," he told Hockey’s Future recently. "When I get an opportunity, I guess I can score, but I try to be a playmaker."
But Shugg underestimates his goal-scoring ability. Not only does he have 33 goals in 59 games for the Windsor Spitfires this year, with a goals to assists ratio that is about even (34 assists), but his own goaltender testified to his goal-scoring prowess.
"He can score at the right time," Philipp Grubauer said. "And he works hard every time he’s on the ice."
Shugg’s hard work indeed is refreshing for someone with so much talent. Down a goal, even two, he plays as if he’s sure the turn-around is entirely doable.
"I love being under pressure and when the game’s late, I love being on the ice and being accountable," Shugg said, pointing out that Windsor was still in need of points to secure home-ice advantage for the playoffs.
Shugg would probably love to be on the ice more, period, but playing on the reigning Memorial Cup champion team that is loaded for bear again this year, ice time is at a premium.
"On this team there’s so much skill and depth that you have to take advantage of every opportunity," he said.
When several of his teammates were away at the 2010 World Junior Championships, Shugg did take advantage, and his production increased. Shugg is an engine on the Spitfires, not a passenger.
"Growing up in minor hockey I played with guys like Taylor Beck, and we were like the studs on the team I guess you could say. Lately in my OHL career I’ve been more accountable for this team," Shugg said.
He usually is on the second power-play unit, but hasn’t seen much PK time this season.
"We have so many PK guys," Shugg said. "When a lot of guys are on the ice they’ll send me out for a late PK shift. They tell me next year I’ll be a top guy on the PK. Defensively, my game’s got to grow."
Shugg is +22, which is about average on the Spitfires. The right-handed shot has been at left wing most of the year, on the second line with Scott Timmons (FLA).
"I’ve always played left wing growing up," he said. "I like coming down my offside and having the puck in the middle of the ice. It give you a lot more options."
That said, he’s been switched to right a few times this year and it doesn’t bother him to switch.
With his draft coming up in about four months, NHL teams have started to chat up the winger.
"I’ve talked a couple, but nothing major," Shugg said. "I try to keep the NHL draft out of my head. I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t think about it, but I just try to take away all the pressure."
Talking to teams isn’t just distraction though. It can be very helpful in pointing a player in the right direction. Shugg is hearing advice from the teams.
"My footspeed," he cited as the first example. "They say it’s growing but I still need to work on that. My release on my shot, I’ve got to work on, they keep telling me, and overall my two-way game."
Ranked 62nd among North American skaters by Central Scouting in the midterms, Shugg is poised to rise.
Years ago, Shugg would have been considered on the small side at just under 5’11, 185 lbs, but not so much anymore.
"There’s little guys playing in the NHL and they’ve proven themselves, so I have nothing against my height," he said.
Indeed, he uses his body to his advantage when the time is right. Last year coming down the stretch he was playing a third-line energy role. At the end of the playoff run, he broke his collarbone. Shugg said it was the most serious injury he’s had so far in his career.
"It takes a while to get back from a shoulder injury obviously in hockey, and I’m still working on getting my shoulder stronger. I broke [the collarbone] almost in the middle so I guess it’s the best shoulder injury you can have."
He said it made him a bit timid to hit at the beginning of this season, but said "I’ve seemed to forget about it."
With the playoffs looming, things will get more physical again.
"Lately when times get more desparate I will be a hitter," Shugg said. "I’ll make more sacrifices blocking shots."
And you can believe it’s not idle talk. Shugg is a stand-up guy, the kind who forms the heart and soul of a championship team. He was one of Windsor’s best players in the Memorial Cup run last year until the injury.