The University of New Hampshire’s Justin Aikins is coming into his own. The junior centerman from Surrey, British Columbia is gaining confidence and as a result, his name is becoming a fixture on the score sheet this season. Through the first 22 games, he has exceeded his point total of 22 from a year ago with 6 goals and 22 assists for 28 points.
"It has always taken me a little while to get comfortable in situations and I feel like this year is sort of going to be my coming out year," explains Aikins.
Prior to the University of New Hampshire, Aikins was a prodigious scorer for the Langley Hornets of the British Columbia Hockey League. In his final season of junior hockey, he recorded 30 goals and 61 assists in only 59 games. Since coming to New Hampshire, Aikins has worked to adjust to the college game.
"In Langley, I was always one of the top forwards and always out in the key situations. Then I came here and it was like a fresh start. I had to start at square one where I was sort of the guy that wasn’t relied on as much as some of the other guys," explained Aikins.
It was his success at Langley that led the Columbus Blue Jackets to select Aikins in the sixth round, 173rd overall, of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. Paul Castron, Director of Player Development for the Blue Jackets, describes Aikins as a very smart player who is an excellent passer and is expected to develop into more of a playmaker than a scorer. Aikins maintains a good relationship with Columbus and is in regular contact with the organization. They keep close tabs on his progress and advise him on his play. Mostly, however, the Blue Jackets have stressed the importance of work ethic and consistency, according to Aikins.
"They encourage that in practice I be the hardest working guy out there," he said. "If I’m the hardest working guy out there, that will carry over to the games."
In his freshman season Aikins challenged for ice time, but he was relegated to playing in only 29 games. His role was significantly reduced from what he had grown accustomed to at Langley and as a result, his confidence was somewhat fragile.
"When I came in here as a freshman, it was tough to crack the top couple of lines because the team was so deep and the program has been so deep for so long," Aikins stated. "That’s just sort of the way it goes and that is the same story for the freshmen coming in this year and those who come down the road. This program has always been top one, two, or three in Hockey East and when a team is that successful it’s going to be hard for some of the younger guys to step in right away."
Aikins’ role grew in his sophomore season. He skated a regular shift and eventually saw some power play and penalty kill time, but the scoring still didn’t come as easily as it once had. He scored four goals and 18 assists on the year.
Now in his third season with the Wildcats, Aikins is getting comfortable with his position on the team. He anchors the second line and is an integral part of the special teams units, playing on both the power play and penalty kill. Aikins attributes his increased offensive production to playing with more confidence.
"I knew in the offseason I was going to be counted on this coming season," he said. "I talked to the coaching staff before I left to go home and train in the summer. When you’re out there playing and the coaches have that kind of confidence in you and you are playing on the power play and penalty kill and you’re out there when there’s thirty seconds left and key situations, it just translates to better play and so I think confidence is the biggest part for me."
The increased responsibility has really sparked Aikins’ game. He has been using his speed and vision to create scoring opportunities. He is clicking with his linemates Preston Callander and Jacob Micfliker and quarterbacking the most efficient power play in Hockey East. Aikins currently leads the team in assists and is tied with Steve Saviano for the lead in scoring. His 22 assists are the most in college hockey so far this season and his 28 points rank sixth in overall scoring.
"Personally, I felt like this year I needed to get off to a good start. The last couple of years I had gotten off to slow starts and picked it up towards the middle. I felt like this year it would be important for me to get a good start and I feel like I did that," Aikins said.
Aikins describes himself as a playmaker with good on ice vision. So far this season Aikins has more than three assists for every goal scored. Castron compares Aikins’ game to that of many European players in that he would prefer to make the perfect pass rather than shoot the puck. Castron adds that Aikins is not a physical player, but he still needs to challenge for the puck and win the battles so he can create scoring opportunities.
"The game has slowed down," Aikins added. "As you get older and you experience the league, and this is my third year now, it’s a comfort zone you begin to feel out there. The fact that I’m playing with some good linemates and playing the point now on the power play is a good opportunity for me to set guys up."
New Hampshire experienced remarkable success in Aikins’ first two years, making Frozen Four appearances in both years, including losing to Minnesota in the 2003 national title game. This season, however, they have struggled to regain the dominant form that characterized the prior teams’ achievement. Aikins admits that they have struggled to win recently, but he is determined to regain their position as one of the top teams in Hockey East. Aikins realizes that the team play needs to improve if they are going to have an opportunity to challenge for a national title once again.
"Right now we’re trying to figure out what exactly needs to be done to rectify the situation and make sure the team is playing at their best come playoff time," said Aikins.
The team has responded recently. In the past three games, the Wildcats have earned five of six possible points and climbed to second place in the Hockey East Standings. During that stretch, Aikins has added six assists including a career high four assist game against Dartmouth on January 13th, in Manchester, NH. However, the recent struggles have highlighted how difficult the road back to the finals will be.
"Obviously my first year it was something I had never experienced (college hockey) so the road to getting there maybe didn’t feel quite as tough and then you realized how tough it is to get there. Then last year making it to the final game and losing the way we did was just a huge disappointment. Now we understand what it does take to get there. It is something we can pass on to the freshmen and teach those guys, hopefully, what it takes to make it that far. And if we do ever get back to learn from our experiences the past two years and hopefully make sure that situation doesn’t happen again."
Should New Hampshire press for another Frozen Four appearance again this year, Aikins will need to be a significant contributor. Despite scoring only six goals this season, Aikins is tied for the team lead in game winning goals with three. This season he is on the ice when the game is in the balance. And if the first half of the season is any indication, a confident Justin Aikins is ready to meet the challenge.