February 22, 2012 2:28 PM
If there was concern that injuries would derail Justin Shugg’s development in his rookie season, he went a long way toward easing it last weekend.
Playing his first AHL three contests since a Dec. 15 injury caused him to miss two months, Shugg recorded 3 points (2g, 1a), including one of the nicer goals scored by a Checker this season on Sunday against Chicago. Right from the get-go, coach Jeff Daniels used him on a scoring line with Zac Dalpe and Chris Terry, and the 20-year-old did not disappoint.
For a player that admittedly had some adjusting to do when he first arrived at the AHL level – he was scoreless in his first eight games – that he arguably played his best three after the long injury is certainly a good sign.
“I had a great opportunity to play with two good players,” said Shugg.
The games didn’t mark the first time on the ice for Shugg since the lower-body ailments caused him to miss 23 games, as he was able to suit up for four games with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades prior to his most recent recall, recording a single assist. Though there weren’t any guarantees as to when he would rejoin the Checkers, the right combination of injuries and NHL recalls turned his visit to Florida into a conditioning stint of sorts that helped him hit the ground running upon his return.
“When I went down there, the coach told me he was going to ease me in,” said Shugg, a fourth-round draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2010. “I stated playing around 10 minutes in the first game and working my way up. The biggest part was my breathing, which I found difficult at first.”
It turns out a little time to shake the rust off was all he needed, as he was able to maintain the scoring run that he began before his seemingly ill-timed injury – the second he had suffered this season. At the time of his recall, all 4 of his career AHL points had come in his last five games.
Perhaps helping to avoid a setback in his overall progress was the fact that his scoring touch was never in question, as he averaged 40 goals over his last two seasons of junior hockey with Windsor and Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League. If there were areas he needed to improve upon from the start of the season, those could be studied off the ice.
“He’s capable of scoring goals, as he showed last weekend, but it’s his compete level and the things he’s doing away from the puck that are the biggest differences for me,” said Daniels.
There’s also the challenge of simply getting used to new surroundings, something he was able to do away from the rink. Throughout the time spent rehabbing his injury, he was around the team every day it was in Charlotte.
“I wasn’t too familiar with the guys here at first,” he said. “I don’t know if I was always comfortable cracking a joke or asking for advice. Now I’ve gotten to know everyone and there’s a lot more talking and asking questions both on and off the ice.”
That comfort has led to confidence, which he showed by scoring that highlight-reel goal against the Wolves. With the Checkers down 2-0 in the first period, Shugg took a pass from Dalpe in the neutral zone, made an excellent one-on-one move to beat a defenseman and finished on the breakaway (video can be seen here).
“I don’t know if I would have tried that earlier in the season,” said Shugg. “At the start, everything is about gaining the coaches’ trust, but I knew we were down two goals and it presented itself. I thought, ‘Why not?’”
With the team expecting to have the same group of forwards at its disposal for upcoming home games against Oklahoma City on Friday and Saturday, Shugg should again get a chance to show what he can do in prominent situations. If he has an encore performance of the previous weekend, he’ll just have to stay healthy in order be a big contributor down the stretch.
So far, so good.
“I’ve never had an injury that significant in my entire career, but it didn’t give me any problems at all last week,” he said. “I’m at 100 percent right now.”
Daniels said that defenseman Justin Krueger, who suffered an upper-body injury on Saturday and did not play the following day, would be out “for a while.” Krueger and former Cornell University teammate Riley Nash were the only players missing from Wednesday’s practice.
“He started the year rotating in and out of the lineup with (Rasmus) Rissanen, but over time those two have become a top-four pairing for us,” said Daniels. “Without a doubt it’s a big loss.”
Joe Sova, who the Hurricanes acquired from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Alexei Ponikarovsky in January, will now become a regular fixture in the lineup after sitting out six games as a healthy scratch prior to Krueger’s injury.
“He can move the puck and will get a chance on the power play,” said Daniels of Sova. “The message for all of these guys is to be patient and wait for that opportunity.”
Daniels said there were no timetables for Nash and fellow forward Chris Durno, though the latter has resumed practicing with the team after missing 21 games. Defenseman Chris Murray has also resumed practicing, though he has not yet been cleared for contact.