BostonBruins.com - Craig Cunningham appeared in 20 games straight for the Bruins prior to the NHL's All-Star Break, picking up his first two NHL goals and his first assists in the process.
The forward is with the big club on his second recall from Providence this season. He made Boston's opening night roster out of training camp and suited up in three games to start the season. He was recalled for the team's road trip to California, but did not suit up. He made his NHL debutAfter made in the Spoked-B during the 2013-14 season, appearing in two games.
Cunningham likely won't be anywhere else besides Boston anytime soon.
"We’ve seen Cunningham really solidify his spot," General Manager Peter Chiarelli said back on January 15. "Good two-way play, good faceoff guy, energetic."
The GM said his comment amidst a media availability in which he announced David Pastrnak was remaining with Boston beyond his ninth NHL game, so the brief statement may have flown under the radar.
Throughout his most recent stint, Cunningham has established himself as a hard-working, reliable, versatile right-shot forward for the Bruins, mostly playing on the fourth line with Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille. Amidst injuries earlier in the season, he filled roles higher up in the lineup. He also saw time on a line reunited with former Vancouver Giants teammate Milan Lucic. He can play at center or on the wing.
"He can play both those positions, and also, he’s very reliable," said Head Coach Claude Julien. "You can move him up at times during a game, and he’ll certainly do the job, so he’s become a very valuable asset as far as we’re concerned."
It took Cunningham longer than he would have liked, spending three seasons and change in Providence. He put up back-to-back 25-goal seasons from 2012-2014 and three straight seasons of at least 20 goals, but he still wasn't making it to Boston. It didn't help that there wasn't much room in the lineup at the time.
"Craig was always asking myself and the coaches in Providence about what else he could do to make the jump, to fill in the gaps," said Assistant General Manager Don Sweeney. "He was a 25-goal scorer, a very important part of the team in Providence, was recently named captain, and yet he had higher aspirations."
When a player in the AHL is named captain, the thought is that he may not get much time up with the big club.
"Yeah, that kind of went through my mind a little bit when the coach asked me about it, I actually asked, 'Does this mean anything?'" said Cunningham. "And they said you know, I think it's good to have a young guy that's kind of hungry to get back, hungry to work his way up to the NHL to wear the captain down here, so it was a very big privilege to be able to wear it."
"Anytime you're named captain of the team, it's a huge honor. Obviously to be a captain of a team like that and the group of guys that we have down there. It's a good support cast and it's a privilege to be named the captain…It means a lot for the organization to look at you like a leader like that."
While Cunningham was wearing the 'C' Providence, he was working his way to Boston.
"He wanted to hear, learn and was willing to do whatever it would take to play in the NHL," said Sweeney. "He worked hard over the summer to be lean and to try and gain another half step of quickness. He worked on face-offs, his defensive zone responsibilities and his board play. He advocated to be utilized more on the penalty kill, even if the trade off was less power play time-on-ice."
"Thinking less," Cunningham said of the difference he's noticed in his game now at the NHL level. "When I get the puck, I'm thinking less now and just kind of letting my instincts take over. I think [it's] that, mixed with [the fact that] I've picked up half a step, which for me to do that has been big for my game."
One of his strongest assets is his ability to adapt to the role he's playing on any given night, in any situation.
"Obviously right now, I need to play with energy, I need to be the first guy in on the forecheck, I need to be buzzing around every time I'm on the ice," said Cunningham, who has started to find chemistry with Campbell. "So I think that extra half step [skating] has helped me a lot and with that."
Whether in a fourth line role or in a more offensive role, Cunningham brings consistency and reliability.
"I believe that Craig has developed into a more well-rounded, versatile player," said Sweeney. "For the past three years, he has scored at a very consistent level in the AHL but last season, and in particular, when he returned to Providence after starting this year in Boston, he really went to work on the smaller details of his game."
"Don Sweeney has worked a lot with me, and has kind of hammered into me, if you're not scoring, you've got to be doing something," said Cunningham. "So he's focused a lot on my penalty killing, face-offs, being good on the walls - you have to find a way to be effective if you're not hitting the scoresheet."
Cunningham's coach in Providence, Bruce Cassidy, was rooting for Cunningham to carve out this opportunity for himself.
"He’s put in his three years, he scored 20 goals every year, he hasn’t missed a game, he's very durable," Cassidy said back in the summer, when the Bruins had forward spots up for grabs.
"I'll tell you what, there is not a better kid in the locker room down there," he went on. "He’s a type of guy who you’re certainly hoping for and rooting for, that he finds a way."
Cunningham no doubt has made his Providence bench boss proud with his play. He's also carried his character and good-natured demeanor with him into Boston's locker room as well.
"I think in junior I learned at a young age with the coaching staff and the leaders there, we had Looch there, and a bunch of other guys that were older guys and had been around - they did things the right way," said Cunningham. "I think it's important - I learned at a young age to show up to the rink every day and to work hard."
"The American League is a unique situation, because you're trying to win together but you know, everyone there is also trying to beat each other out to get a spot and it's important to show up to the rink every day with a smile on your face, no matter what and no matter who gets called up and who's getting an opportunity before you, and keep working hard. And I think that rubs off on other guys and other guys realize the same thing."
In Boston, Cunningham doesn't need to be captain. But his captain-like qualities are what will keep him playing at the NHL level.
"Craig is a lead by example player by nature, but he is also comfortable speaking his mind when the situation calls for it," said Sweeney. "He has the respect of both the coaches and his teammates."
"He prepares to come to play every night. His competitiveness is infectious and he wants to win, first and foremost."