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Pierre-Cedric Labrie ready to push for Lightning roster spot

by Dan Marrazza / Tampa Bay Lightning

When you say the name “Pierre-Cedric Labrie” to a Tampa Bay Lightning fan, three things usually come to mind.

The first is a scrumptious platter of nachos. In fact, it’s hard to think of a better nickname in recent Lightning history than “Nacho Labrie,” which when said in Pierre-Cedric’s thick French-Canadian accent, sounds more like its namesake, “Nacho Libre,” the movie starring Jack Black.

The second thing that Lightning fans associate with Pierre-Cedric Labrie is his majestic poof of reddish-brown hair, which could rival Mike Commodore, Scott Hartnell or even the cinematically-famous Ogie Ogilthorpe on even the most humid day of a particularly hot Florida summer.

The third notable memory of Pierre-Cedric Labrie, the aspect of him most associated with his hockey-playing abilities, is how he was called up to Tampa Bay in mid-January and instantly injected an extra element of toughness into the Bolts’ lineup.

“That’s how I have to play,” said Labrie. “I’m a big guy that needs to play the strong game. And if the team needs someone to fight, I’m always ready to step up to do that, too.”

Labrie, despite averaging a 2011-12 team-lowest 5:54 time-on-ice, got himself into three fights during his 14-game stint with the Lightning this season, with his scraps coming against Pittsburgh’s Deryk Engelland (1/15), Dallas’ Eric Nystrom (1/20) and Montreal’s Brad Staubitz (2/28).

“There’s different elements to toughness,” said Labrie’s AHL coach with the Norfolk Admirals, Jon Cooper. “This organization believes that the game is just as much about mental toughness as it is about physical toughness. But when you have guys who can intimidate that you’re also not afraid to put on the ice, it’s a huge asset to have.”

Without doubt, when the Lightning begin training camp next Sept., there will be a number of roster spots that will be open for competition. One of the roles that the team will be looking to fill is that of a third or fourth-line wing that can play a regular shift and drop the gloves when the team needs a spark.

And here’s where Pierre-Cedric Labrie has the chance to fit into the Lightning’s future.

Because while Labrie has already proven his willingness to drop the gloves during his stint with the Lightning this season, he, while currently playing for the Norfolk Admirals in the Calder Cup Playoffs, is working on making the improvements that he’ll need to make to become a more well-rounded player that can claim one of the Lightning’s available roster spots in training camp.

“The team has a power-skating coach named Barbara Underhill,” said Labrie. “I’ve already worked with her a lot. She’s noticed something in my stride where I’m not dropping down enough, so we’re going to work on that this summer.”

“For Labs (Labrie), his first few steps are what he needs to work on,” added Jon Cooper. “For him, it’s about his stops, his starts and his quickness. One thing about Labs’ skating is that when the big train gets moving, he can move. His conditioning is there, but he’ll have to get a step quicker off the mark to keep up at the next level.”

But while Labrie admittedly will be working this summer to quicken his acceleration, the improvements he’s already made with the Admirals this season indicate that for the Baie-Comeau, Quebec native, his making his next round of improvements are more a question of “when” than “if.”

Labrie battles with Deryk Engelland of the Pittsburgh Penguins during a January call-up to Tampa Bay(Photo: Scott Audette/NHL for Getty Images)

This season alone, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Labrie doubled his career high for goals in an AHL season (14). Meanwhile, after finishing the 2009-10 season with a -13 rating, he had a +14 rating last year and a +33 rating this year, which was the second-highest plus/minus of the 1,010 skaters to have played in an AHL game this season, behind only his linemate Trevor Smith’s +34.

“Whenever you keep moving up levels, defense is a big responsibility,” said Cooper. “When you look at his plus/minus, you can just see the success that Labs has had this year. Another way to see his success is by looking at the numbers that his linemates (Cory Conacher and Trevor Smith) put up. Labs is always the first one in the corners, he wins the puck battles and that makes everybody around him better.”

Labrie’s usual linemates this season, Cory Conacher and Trevor Smith, both had career seasons this year.

Conacher, a rookie, led the AHL with 39 goals, while winning both the league’s MVP award and rookie-of-the-year award.

Smith, the line’s center, finished with a 69-point total this season that was a 26-point improvement from the 43 points he compiled last season with the Syracuse Crunch and Springfield Falcons.

“It’s a pleasure to play with someone who is always the first one in the corner,” said Smith. “It seems like he wins every puck battle and then it’s just a matter of him getting the puck to Connie (Conacher) and me. Labs is an absolute animal in the corners.”

However, despite Labrie’s obvious potential, expectations should be kept realistic.

Chances are, he won’t ever join Steven Stamkos as the team’s next 60-goal scorer and more than likely, he won’t ever duplicate Martin St. Louis’ feat of having nine straight 60-point seasons.

But this isn’t who the Lightning need Pierre-Cedric Labrie to be.

As recent champions like the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins have proven, and as successful 2011-12 playoff teams like the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers are proving; in the playoffs, it really pays off to have defensively responsible role players who can bash, crash and wear other teams’ defensemen down.

While these grinders rarely receive the accolades that goal scorers and superstar goalies get, they’re equally important to a winning team’s success.

“I just try to bring energy every shift,” said Labrie. “When I do my job, I think everybody else feeds off of it. When I can bring the energy, I know the other guys like it.”

Not only will Labrie’s teammates have a lot to like if he can continue to do his job, but so will Lightning fans in the very near future.

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