It's not unusual to see Stars goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi on the ice a little early working with goaltending coach Jeff Reese. And always hitting the ice early to help out with the goaltending sessions and get some extra work is forward Adam Cracknell.
"I like any player that goes out there early," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said when asked about Cracknell's habit of hitting the ice early. "With mandatory days off, players have a choice on how much work they want to put in, so you get to choose whether you get here early and get some work done or get out early with some of the coaches. He chooses to be a part of that every day. It can't do anything but help you. He's trying to put himself in a position where when he gets in, he can make a difference."
And Cracknell has made a difference for the Stars this season. He's been a pleasant surprise, especially as a guy many people thought would be minor league depth player when the Stars signed him to a one-year, two-way deal in the offseason.
He's played 42 of 49 games this season, has registered eight points (six goals and two assists) and leads the Stars with a plus-ten rating. He's already set a career-high with the six goals, and there's a good chance he'll top his career-high of 52 games played in an NHL season.
"It's just nice to get to play consecutive games and get more responsibility," Cracknell said. "When you average 10-12 minutes a game, you can get a lot done for our team. My linemates have been playing great, and that's how we keep getting rewarded."
Cracknell has been a strong bottom six forward for the Stars, spending a lot of time on the fourth line and usually his line has been an effective one for the team.
"He hangs onto the puck better than a lot of our players, and that is a big benefit," Ruff said.
Last season was a turning point for the 31-year-old Cracknell. It was the first time in his professional career, which started in 2006-07, that he spent the entire season in the NHL, playing 52 games with both Vancouver and Edmonton.
"It comes with confidence and being more confident in the league," Cracknell said. "Just being more determined."
It takes determination to make it to the NHL when you are a ninth-round pick (by Calgary in 2004) and have to work your way up through the minors, starting with two seasons with Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL.
"It's been a bit of a grind," Cracknell said. "I wouldn't change anything about it. Those two years in Vegas (ECHL) may have taken a few years off my life."
But it was with Las Vegas he learned to be a pro thanks to former Stars coach and current Calgary bench boss Glen Gulutzan, who was head coach with the Wranglers back then.
"He developed me into a pro, helped me understand the game and what it took," Cracknell said.
After three seasons in the Flames organization, the Saskatchewan native signed with the St. Louis organization in July 2009 and made his NHL debut in Dec. 2010. He shuffled between the NHL and the AHL with both the Blues and Blue Jackets before finally sticking in the NHL full-time with both the Canucks and Oilers last season.
Then it was onto the Stars, who appeared deep at forward when Cracknell signed in July. But as the injuries started to mount among the Dallas forward group, Cracknell, now in his eleventh pro season, saw an opening and seized it, grabbing an opening-night roster spot.
"I approached [camp] as I did in Vancouver last year. I'd go out, and it is a cliché, but just keep it simple. Play smart, manage the puck well and play strong defensively," Cracknell said. "Once guys started going down [with injuries], it kind of raised my expectations personally to elevate my game, especially in exhibition games. It worked out great. So far, it's been great personally."
And Cracknell has worked out well for the Stars, proving to be a versatile forward. When the Stars needed help at center due to the injuries, they moved Cracknell, normally a right wing, into the middle and he's adjusted to the position.
"I think he is more used to center now. He knows what he has to do every game," Ruff said. "He struggled earlier on with playing in the middle, but I think he understands it a little better now, and that makes a difference."
And Cracknell, who now has 176 career NHL games under his belt, will keep doing what he needs to do to make a difference, whether it is killing penalties, centering a line or hitting the ice early to work with the goaltenders. It's been a long road to the NHL, and he's making the most of it.
"It's been a little rocky," Cracknell said, "but any day in the NHL is a good day."