Crosby may certainly be "The Next One" as far as NHL all-time greats are concerned, but as far as Long Island natives go, Ryan Cruthers very well may be "The Next One."
Following in the footsteps of current NHL players Christopher Higgins, Mike Komisarek and Eric Nystrom, Cruthers is making his mark in professional hockey. While he's still two steps away from reaching the pinnacle of the sport, the 24-year-old rookie is off to a phenomenal start with the ECHL's Mississippi Sea Wolves.
"I was hoping to get off to a good start," said Cruthers, who has 5 goals and 4 assists in the team's first 9 games. "I got some games in last year in the (ECHL) playoffs with Utah and really didn’t play my best hockey. I knew it was important to get off to a good start and that it would help my confidence knowing that I could play in this league. Hopefully I can move up as soon as possible. I definitely looked forward to the start of the year all summer. It's worked out for me."
Cruthers grew up in Farmingdale, N.Y., which is about a 45-minute train ride from Manhattan. It was on Long Island where he had the chance to watch Komisarek and Higgins, and he also had the opportunity to play alongside Nystrom. All three ended up being first-round draft picks.
"As I grew up, there was more and more good players coming out of Long Island," Cruthers said. "Right around my age group was Chris Higgins and Mike Komisarek. Those guys were the older guys that I kind of looked up to. Eric Nystrom played for the same youth team as me. Having those guys ahead of you and seeing what they were doing and where they were going, that always kept you focused and you kept pushing."
Cruthers certainly has been focused and pushing in Mississippi. After enjoying a solid camp with the Houston Aeros in the American Hockey League, Cruthers arrived in Steffon Walby's camp in Mississippi prepared to do whatever it took to reach the Triple-A level. While he hasn't gotten the call yet, Walby believes it's only a matter of time before Cruthers is playing in the AHL.
"I'm surprised that he hasn’t gotten a call yet," Walby told NHL.com. "I actually talked with (Houston assistant coach) Troy Ward (on Wednesday) morning, and I told him that I have 2 or 3 guys that are playing very well, and that he's one of them. I asked if he had any room to throw him a bone. They're going on a road trip, but they said they'll look for him when they come back. They said he was rough around the edges, which he is. But until you get him into a game and see him on a daily basis, you don't realize the intangibles. The kid always has a smile on his face."
It's been a long road for Cruthers to reach this point. He spent two seasons at West Point, where he tallied 11 goals and 23 assists for Army. With a desire for stiffer competition, Cruthers transferred to Robert Morris University. In the end, it could end up being the best decision he's ever made.
In his two seasons at Robert Morris, he had 39 goals and 47 assists in 68 games, which forced professional teams to take notice. Upon completion of his fourth NCAA season, Cruthers landed with the Utah Grizzlies, where he had 2 assists in 4 games. He appeared in another 15 postseason contests for Utah, going 1-4-5.
"We were playing a lot harder competition, and I think that helped a lot," Cruthers said of leaving Army for Robert Morris. "Playing in Atlantic Hockey at Army, you don't get many out-of-conference games against some big-time teams. At Robert Morris, we played a lot of big-time teams that were first- or second-ranked in the country at the time we played them. That helps your confidence when you beat some of those big-time teams, and it shows that you can play at a higher level."
Prior to his arrival in Utah, the ECHL wasn't completely unfamiliar to Cruthers. His former linemate, Aaron Clarke, played for the Wheeling Nailers in 2007-08, which gave Cruthers an opportunity to catch a couple of games.
-- Ryan Cruthers
"I knew a little bit about it," Cruthers said. "Once my senior year got under way, I started talking to some teams and looking at it more. My linemate from the year before (Clarke) was playing for Wheeling, so I was able to shoot down and see a couple of games when he was playing. That's kind of how my eyes opened to the ECHL."
After a solid showing with the Grizzlies, Cruthers was invited to Houston's camp. While he didn't make the final cut, he received positive feedback from Aeros brass before heading to Mississippi.
"I had a great exit meeting with (Houston coach) Kevin Constantine," Cruthers said. "He pointed out a couple of things that he would like to see improve, and he told me that I could easily play at that level and to expect to be called up. That helped my confidence going back to the ECHL. I think just being in that camp for 10 days, you come down at a higher level. I think that's why I was able to get off to a pretty good start here."
"As I grew up, there was more and more good players coming out of Long Island. Right around my age group was Chris Higgins and Mike Komisarek. Those guys were the older guys that I kind of looked up to." -- Ryan Cruthers
"Certainly, I didn't think that that was what I was going to get out of the kid," Walby said. "But when you see his work ethic and his drive for success, knowing his school background and everything, it's pretty impressive."
Clearly, Cruthers has shown he has the ability to score. While he hopes to continue to put up numbers for the Sea Wolves, his plan is to spend a lot of time in the gym before he receives a call from an AHL club.
"I have to get stronger," Cruthers said. "They sent me their workout program from Houston. I have to do the little things off the ice that are tough to do when you're playing so many games. Hopefully if I get called up there, I can stick around."
Contact Brian Compton at: email@example.com.