Craig Cunningham is merely 23 years old and on his second professional contract after his entry-level pact ran its course. Yet the aspiring Boston Bruins winger is forming a can’t-miss common thread with minor-league baseball movie legend Crash Davis.
A combination of his own durability and blockage up the pipeline has put him in a position to break the Providence Bruins’ all-time games played record sometime in 2014-15.
Having missed two tilts through three 76-game AHL regular seasons, he ranks 12th on the leaderboard in question with 226 (per the Internet Hockey Database). He needs to suit up 53 more times to supplant current record-holder Jay Henderson, who sported the spoked "P” on 278 occasions.
With that said, spending a cumulative quarter of the schedule with Boston would speak to immense strides in Cunningham’s career. Having garnered a few spurts of action with Claude Julien’s club last season, the means to attain that look to be coming together.
Cunningham’s patience and persistence translated to a pair of one-game promotions to the parent club in 2013-14. He logged 8:16 of ice time Dec. 17 and then 10:42 on the last day of the regular season.
In a recent feature interview with Steve Ewen of the Vancouver Province, he offered that “Once you play and get sent back down, it makes you that hungrier. The life is night and day, pretty much. It’s the life that I want. Everything’s different.”
Not much was different about Cunningham’s presence and productivity over the four months between his two NHL appearances. He would lead the P-Bruins with 25 goals in 75 games played, matching his exact output from 2012-13. The year prior, he set a tone with 20 tallies in 76 ventures.
If one judges him by that output, it is hard to imagine there is much left to prove in the minors. If his actions and achievements at next month’s training camp match his words to Ewen, that notion will have more substance.
But none other than Cunningham’s AHL bench boss has laid out additional cause for motivation. Consider this note from CSNNE.com beat reporter Joe Haggerty in a July 12 post during Boston’s development camp:
Interesting comments from Providence Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy after Saturday’s session. In essence he believes that Craig Cunningham is behind a number of other Bruins – including Ryan Spooner, Alex Khokhlachev, Justin Florek and Matt Fraser – on the depth chart when it comes to challenging for spots on the NHL club.
Hardly an automatic sentence to another minimally interrupted AHL odyssey, but a rigid reaffirmation as to the roadblock.
In fairness to the flipside, Ewen’s write-up in the Province mentioned the likes of Jordan Caron, Florek and Fraser. But Ewen went on to note that “Cunningham does have one particular advantage over the aforementioned players. He’s one the right-handed shot in the group, so he’d playing his natural side if they’re looking for a right winger.”
In the eyes of The Hockey News, while he plays on his off-wing, Fraser ranks third among right wings on Boston’s organizational depth chart. Trailing him in descending order are the left-shooting Caron, Brian Ferlin, Jared Knight, Seth Griffith and Cunningham.
Caron is familiar enough, having logged 123 games and generally failed to follow up on his first-round draft selection in four years. Conversely, fresh out of Cornell University, Ferlin has yet to play a professional game at any level.
Griffith and Knight, two of Cunningham’s fellow Providence mainstays, will be the chief competition for a call-up. They, too, are right-hand shots with a measure of talent still waiting to unearth.
Injuries have hampered Knight’s development through two professional seasons. But if he stays healthy in the final season of his entry-level deal, the 22-year-old ought to earn a longer look from the higher-ups in Boston. If nothing else, he can debut at the end of the regular season if and when the Bruins elect to rest a cluster of key cogs.
Griffith is coming off a productive rookie campaign with a 20-30-50 scoring log in the regular season. He followed up with four strikes and seven helpers in 12 playoff contests.
Based on Cassidy’s testimony to Haggerty in another July write-up, Cunningham and Griffith are in a fluctuating footrace to the top among prospective emergency promotions. The Baby Bs’ bench boss offered, in reference to Griffith:
Better on the walls, he’ll have to get better against men. But the other parts of his game, I think he could come up and compliment skilled players…I think another year will benefit him because he is a pretty fit guy for us, he’s 190 pounds and he’s strong.
Regarding Cunningham, Cassidy told Haggerty in the same report, “He’s good in every area of the game and to be in the NHL, to earn your job, you maybe have to have a particular strength in one area to sort of solidify that spot for yourself. He’s missing a little bit of that.”
Based on that evaluation, Cunningham is trending toward one more season comprised of predominantly AHL action. But it should be a less cavernous AHL-to-NHL ratio as Cassidy nudges him toward the niche he needs.
How often Boston taps into his services, and for how long at a time, will hinge on other transactions.
Caron could be trade bait, a notion his agent and general manager have both acknowledged to the New England hockey press corps. But the Bruins may just as easily swap out a piece of their defensive overstock to upgrade on the right wing.
If Fraser re-signs and ends his ongoing restricted free agency, he will come in with more stripes than his competitors. He suited up with the Spoked Bs 14 times in the last regular season and four in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Khokhlachev and Spooner will both stun if they do not make the cut out of training camp. Odds are the Bruins would prefer not to go much farther in terms of how many NHL rookies they employ at once, if they can help it.
In addition, there is the speculation that fourth-line center Gregory Campbell could switch to a wing to lend that position more seasoning. Nicholas Goss of NESN.com acknowledged the Campbell potentiality while also evoking the outside chance of fresh first-rounder David Pastrnak taking a crack at immediate employment.
Still, among the AHLers pushing to cement that first stand-in slot under the “RW” heading, Cunningham stands out with his authentic NHL experience. With it comes an authentic understanding, albeit a minimal dose of it, and the fastidious craving he mentioned to Ewen.
He will doubtlessly have his chances to address and heighten that hunger as injuries and illnesses come and go through Boston’s lineup. A barely double-digit collection of appearances is a reasonable proposition.
But assuming his remarkable durability holds up, his “reward” in the Providence record book should still be a matter of time.
The AHL disclosed its 2014-15 schedule Wednesday, and the P-Bruins play their 53rd game at Lehigh Valley on Feb 20. Minor-league trivia junkies are advised to highlight the full time span between that date and the April 19 season finale.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com