It was easy to overlook Cory Stillman as an MVP candidate for the 2006 Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes. There was the 100-point season of Eric Staal, the grit of captain Rod Brind’Amour and the Conn Smythe Trophy performance of Cam Ward.
General manager Jim Rutherford targeted Stillman the summer before the Cup as a top free agent acquisition, already having won hockey’s ultimate prize the season before with the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, his wasn’t touted around the NHL as being a major difference maker for the Canes.
Rutherford was about the only one talking about Stillman’s aura – both on and off the ice.
But Stillman was more than solid in 2005-06, posting 21 goals and 55 assists for 76 points in 72 regular-season games. In the playoffs, he was even more of a factor, getting nine goals and 17 assists as Carolina surprised everyone by capturing the franchise’s first Cup.
And guess who assisted on most of Staal’s 45 goals?
Stillman’s value to the Canes was never more evident than at the start of last season, when offseason shoulder surgery had the winger in a suit for the better part of three months. The 12-year veteran ended up playing just 43 games and never really got in the groove, scoring just five goals and adding 22 assists.
Carolina’s power play suffered without Stillman, and so did Staal, who dipped from 45 goals to 30.
A year later, a more fit and 100 percent healthy Stillman can’t wait for the puck to drop Wednesday night at the RBC Center for the 2007-08 opener against Montreal.
“It’s a fresh start for me,” Stillman said. “I’ve had a whole summer to train my body and tomorrow is going to be a big test to show what I’ve done.”
Stillman said he went back to the basics during a training regimen that started with just 2-3 pound weights.
| ||David Droschak
“I couldn’t do a lot of heavy lifting at the start,” he said. “I had to retrain everything. Obviously you play through injuries, but the strength wasn’t to where it should have been. I feel great now.
“Having an injury is probably the hardest thing to go through. But that’s last year,” Stillman said.
Stillman is one of the least flashy players on the team, but maybe one of its most important. He’ll be reunited with Staal and Erik Cole against Montreal, and he adds a calming effect to the power play.
“My job is to get them the puck at the right time,” Stillman said of his skilled linemates. “They are both guys who skate extremely well.”
“Cory brings that veteran savvy to our line,” said Cole. “Cory was always the voice to be heard two years ago, me and Eric were just two gophers running around out there trying to bring the energy and just make things happen by using our speed. Cory pointed out a lot of things to us throughout the point of a game or the season that was good for both of us to look at and recognize.
“He has such patience,” added Cole. “He thinks the game very, very well and he puts the puck in areas where we can get it with speed.”
For Peter Laviolette, the return of Stillman gives the coach a valuable QB on the power play, a guy who plays along the side boards, who can make the right pass or draw defenders away from some of Carolina’s sharpshooters like Brind’Amour, Justin Williams, Staal or Ray Whitney.
“He proved his value to his team two years ago in the long playoff run,” Laviolette said. “He’s one of the more gifted guys in the league, seeing the ice and making plays. The year he was in Tampa he was the league’s seventh-leading scorer, he was our second-leading scorer and missed being the leading scorer in the playoffs by a hair. When you put numbers up like that in those circumstances and under those conditions you really separate yourself from a lot of players. He has a gift for offense.”
If Carolina is to return to the playoffs in 2008, Stillman will likely have another productive season.