When Ryan Craig was given an opportunity to play for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season, he not only grabbed it, he ran with it.
Craig was arguably the most pleasant surprise for the Lightning last season after being recalled for a game against the Detroit Red Wings in late 2005. Scoring a goal in his first NHL game, Craig went to finish with 15 goals and 13 assists, tying him for second all-time Lightning in goals by a Lightning rookie.
In a way, no one should have been surprised.
While Craig was not on the opening night roster for the Lightning, he has made a habit of quickly progressing through the ranks of the leagues he has played in during his career. Although drafted in the eighth round of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Craig came out of a highly successful junior career with the Western Hockey League's Brandon Wheat Kings to spend only five games with the ECHL's Pensacola Ice Pilots before being recalled to the AHL.
Within two seasons he would be named the captain of the Springfield Falcons, a distinction he also held in his final two seasons with the Wheat Kings. He would remain the captain until he was recalled by the Lightning. Continuing the trend of moving up quickly, he never looked back.
Not looking back means looking forward, however, and returning to the Lightning this season is going to be a different challenge. A strong bet to make the roster thanks to his work ethic and leadership skills, Craig realized it was still important to make a good impression in one of the most competitive camps the organization had seen in years.
"[My goal was] to try to make sure I come into camp in better shape," Craig said during training camp. "I want to take on a bigger role with this team. I've had some success, but it's still a work in progress."
While Craig was impressive in both ends of the ice during his rookie campaign, showing a maturity seldom seen in players his age, the work in progress involves improving the skills associated with the solid two-way play that is the key to success in today's NHL. Craig understands the Lightning are looking for more than just goals.
"Hard work and a two-way game, [that's] what I pride myself on." Craig said. "It's the little things that need to get done and obviously I want to help on the offense. You want to score every shift, but you have to be responsible offensively and defensively, so anything you can chip in is more than welcome by the team."
Last year, Craig easily met those objectives for the Lightning. In addition to the points he put up, Craig quickly earned the respect of his coaches and found himself playing on special teams and in key situations. Many of those opportunities came as a result of a strong willingness to learn, a trait Craig arrived with but also made into a lesson for the new season.
"You have to play and need to come to work every day," he said. "It's a job and we enjoy our job a lot, but it still is a job. You can learn a lot by watching and listening to your teammates and guys who have been around and just try to take in as much as you can."
With all the talk of goals and expectations, Craig hopes that all his hard work and dedication will help solidify him as a player that is relied upon in a variety of situations.
"I need to play solid two-way hockey, [show] responsibility, try to play in every situation possible," Craig said. "I would like to establish myself as a good player in the NHL."
For Craig, this season means more than following up on a solid rookie campaign. This season means building upon the lessons he learned in his first year and showing the responsibility and maturity that has followed him throughout his career. Given the way he ran with the opportunity he was given by the Lightning as a rookie, that should come as no surprise.