Ryan Craig, starting his fifth season in the NHL, was demoted to Norfolk of the American Hockey League in late September.
Craig took the news like any other hockey player would. Then he reacted like the professional he is.
“We had a meeting as soon as he got here,” Admirals Head Coach Darren Rumble said. “He was disappointed. But he looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I’ll give you whatever I’ve got.’
“With some guys, that’s just lip service. It wasn’t with him.”
Craig knows no other way.
A new obstacle was put in front of Craig, and the 6-foot-1, 215-pound forward intended to waste no time pushing it aside. Craig had seven goals and two assists in 11 games before being recalled by the Lightning last week.
“I looked at it as a step for me to get back to where I was,” Craig said. “I was able to go down there and play well, help Norfolk and work my way back.”
Even though Craig didn’t make the Lightning’s opening night roster this season, his road back to an NHL job may have truly started in the summer.
Craig, 27, missed most of the 2007-08 season due to injury and did more rehabbing than training before last season. This summer, Craig had a chance to train more extensively and he changed up his program a bit. He worked with the ARP (Accelerated Recovery Performance) machine, an electro stimulation apparatus, among other things.
“I went more with lighter weights, quicker and did more reps,” Craig said. “I just tried to make sure I was healthy coming into camp.
“I feel as good as I did the start of my second year here. I’m excited to be back, excited about this group of guys and where we’re headed. I just hope I can jump on board and contribute.”
That opportunity might not have come if he did not produce in many areas for the Admirals.
Rumble said Craig was a leader in Norfolk, a good example for the young players to emulate. He played close to 20 minutes a night, first-unit power play, took key face-offs, anything needed.
“He’s such a horse around the net and he’s strong on his stick,” Rumble said. “He wasn’t seeing top-six minutes the last few seasons in Tampa Bay, so sometimes it takes guys a while to get their scoring touch back. He jumped right in here and produced.”
Lightning coach Rick Tocchet saw a little bounce to Craig’s step the first two games back and more confidence offensively.
“From the bottom six forwards, we’re looking for a lot of speed and the ability to change the tempo of games,” Tocchet said. “Craig can do that by hitting, going to the net, shooting the puck on net. He’s got to keep it up and he knows that.
“Even if you are playing eight, 10, 12 minutes, you still have to contribute offensively. The thing about Ryan is he is willing to go in front of the net all the time.”
Craig said he wouldn’t call himself a goal scorer. His goals have never been pretty. But Craig does have a track record of production.
The Abbotsford, British Columbia native had 42 goals his last season in juniors with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League and had a 27-goal season in the AHL with the Springfield Falcons. Craig followed that up by scoring 29 goals his first two NHL seasons (120 games). Injuries have contributed to him scoring just three the last 63.
“I believe I can score goals here,” Craig said. “I think I can get to the net, tip pucks, get rebounds and find ways to get the puck across the goal line. We need secondary scoring. We have the big guys who can score consistently. If we can chip in consistently with the secondary scoring throughout the lineup, that bolsters are chances of winning hockey games.”
Craig played with Zenon Konopka, Todd Fedoruk and Drew Miller primarily the first two games and had a shot on goal each game.
“They bring energy,” Craig said. “It’s been easy to jump in with those guys because they play straight-ahead hockey. When we get the puck, we’re going North-South. We’re trying to get it in the zone, toward the net or battling to win it back. That’s a simple and productive way to play.”
Craig plans on taking advantage of this new opportunity.
“I always think I can do more,” Craig said. “I just want to get back to being that consistent guy that my teammates and the coaching staff know what they are going to get from me each and every night. I want to get back to putting the puck in the net, being a plus player and helping to win hockey games.”