A few weeks ago, Cory Stillman
was thinking about his life and the changes that took him from Calgary to St. Louis and then to Stanley Cup titles with the Tampa Bay Lightning
in 2004 and the Carolina Hurricanes
The 34-year-old Stillman admitted to me that he learned about the business side of hockey being with three teams in three seasons. He said he felt comfortable now – or as comfortable as a player can get in a hockey world that thrives on quick decisions, salary caps and free agency.
"I remember it felt like it was getting late in the summer of 2005 (early August following the lockout year) and I was still looking for a team," Stillman said, recalling the good times in Tampa Bay when he became a key part of the Lightning’s first championship. "I was looking for a team, but no one wanted me ... until (Hurricanes GM) Jim Rutherford called. Most important, it was no secret that, after all of the moving, I was looking for a stable home for my family."
Cory, his wife Mara, and their children, Riley, Madison and Chase, thought they had found that stability in Raleigh. But Stillman will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, so when Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray called, looking to add some scoring punch, Rutherford listened and then approached Stillman.
Cory agreed to waive the no-trade clause in his contract to move to the team that has been on top of the Eastern Conference for most of this season after going to the Stanley Cup Final last June. He’s now a Senator, along with defenseman Mike Commodore, with winger Patrick Eaves and defenseman Joe Corvo going to Carolina.
This is the kind of deal a team that fully intends to go deep in the playoffs looks to make. Clearly, Murray raced well ahead of the Feb. 26 deadline to make sure his team has several months to find the right first- and second-line combinations to make the Senators stronger for the playoffs.
"We saw how Anaheim played against us in the Final," Murray said, no doubt remembering how his high-scoring team was limited to just 11 goals in five games last June, with four of those goals scored by Daniel Alfredsson. "I’d certainly like to see a few more than three guys scoring a lot of points here. When you get the shut-down guys on you and you can't get secondary scoring, then you have a real problem. I think Cory brings experience, a real knowledge of the game, leadership and smarts around the net that will help us.
"I didn’t want to give up a young player with character like Patty Eaves, but right now, for this particular group of players, I think Cory brings makes us better."
Stillman, who had 21 goals and 25 assists in 55 games this season, clearly makes the Senators better now, while the Hurricanes acquired a young forward with promise in the 23-year-old Eaves, and a coveted puck-moving defenseman in Corvo.
But Rutherford could be considered understandably melancholy about trading away two players who were keys to Carolina’s first Stanley Cup title run. Actually, it was little more than a month ago that Rutherford remembered his days in junior hockey at Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League and watching Stillman star for Peterborough.
"He’s always been a real smart player who just seems to make things happen," Rutherford said. "He definitely gets his points ... as a scorer or playmaker. I don’t think it’s by coincidence that he contributes at the most important times."
It was a case of irony indeed that the Hurricanes GM was talking about Stillman then and now, and how often he would bring up Cory’s name in trade conversations with teams once they both made it to the NHL.
Stillman always has had the talent. He just seemed to spend a lot of years trying to find himself. He'd get his 16 to 27 goals, but there always seemed to be something missing – a spark, the passion of a champion. His great skills always seemed to be left unfulfilled. Until 2002-03, when he was quick, sharp, dangerous and wound up with 24 goals and 67 points for St. Louis. But the Blues were in a cost-cutting mode and Stillman was traded to Tampa Bay for the bargain price of a 2003 second-round draft choice. All he did for the Lightning was increase his production to 25 goals and 80 points – tied for seventh in League scoring. And he helped Tampa Bay win the Stanley Cup.
Then, after all that, Stillman was left unsigned, a free agent. Go figure.
"It's taken me longer to earn more respect," Stillman said. "Maybe people look down and see me as a part of the supporting cast. I don't know. To me, that goes hand in hand. I feel like I've been a better player the past three years and I think I'm making the guys around me better.
I think I'm a more mature player now, a hungrier player. I understand more about the game ... and myself. The big thing is, I've learned to relax and go out there and have fun on the ice. That's the key. - Cory Stillman
"I think I'm a more mature player now, a hungrier player. I understand more about the game ... and myself. The big thing is, I've learned to relax and go out there and have fun on the ice. That's the key."
You could say the Senators now are showing that respect for Stillman and his offensive body of work in St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Carolina, not just because he sort of became a good luck charm for Tampa Bay and Carolina in their Stanley Cup runs.
"I wouldn’t say good luck," Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette corrected me. "I’d just say he’s good. Cory kind of flies under the radar. He was one of he top scorers in the NHL when he was with Tampa. But he seems to go unnoticed. Then, all of a sudden, there he is making another big play. To me, he's always contributed in the biggest games ... in the biggest ways."
Stillman had points in 21 of Carolina’s 25 playoff games – and 14 of the last 15 games – in the Hurricanes’ hunt for the Stanley Cup in 2006.
Cory is kind of a darter, a shark. He's slowly circling one second, and then boom, he uses his quickness and skills to pop into an opening for another good scoring opportunity. He's also strong enough to produce in traffic.
"You always have to have an idea where he is," said Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger, who played with Cory in St. Louis for two-plus seasons. "He'll sort of disappear and then reappear someplace you don't want to see a guy with those skills waiting for a scoring opportunity."
"Just watch the way he moves without the puck," Hurricanes winger Eric Staal said. "He’s always looking for the opening or hole where he can get into position for a good scoring opportunity."
The Peterborough native is quick and talented. He has a quick and is very dangerous on the rush.
After missing the first 31 games of last season following off-season shoulder surgery, Stillman missed another 10 games with a knee injury.
"He never was quite right last season," Laviolette said. "And we missed him."
This season, Stillman seemed to be on a mission as the Hurricanes were battling for first place in the Southeast Division. Again, no coincidence.
"If you want to have a winning team, Cory Stillman is one of those players you’d like to have," St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray said. "He’s such an instinctive player, the way he always seems to find the scoring spots on the ice."
Stillman laughed when I asked him if it is sweeter to have found success after so many years.
"No, I’d want it from start to finish ... but that isn’t possible," Stillman said. "I wouldn’t trade the experiences I had in Calgary and St. Louis. So, yes, I guess it is a little sweeter to hunger for success and then get it."
Winning teams. Success. Cory Stillman.
Ottawa fans may just find out why there are those who say all of those things go hand in hand.