Cunningham

Cunningham

Last month Bruins forward Craig Cunningham was put in the unenviable position of having to accept the captain’s ‘C’ for Providence of the American Hockey League.

With one goal in his first two games since being recalled from the P-Bruins in time for the Bruins’ game against Chicago on Thursday, he’s now one of offensively challenge Boston’s most productive forwards.

Beyond his first NHL goal, Cunningham impressed grumpy Bruins coach Claude Julien enough to earn some individual praise after a 3-2 shootout loss to Ottawa on Saturday at TD Garden.

“Everything,” Julien responded to a question about what impressed him about Cunningham against the Senators. “Skated well, you know, he competes hard. All things that we know about him.”

Cunningham might’ve only received a promotion from Providence because Simon Gagne left the team to be with his sick father. Now we might be looking at a long run for Cunningham among the Bruins’ bottom six forwards. After all, he is playing well enough to stick this time around, right?

“I don’t think that’s a question for me,” Cunningham said after the Ottawa game. “I’m just trying to play hard and contribute. Bring some energy and do the best I can.”

Throughout his career, Cunningham has always been an “energy player” that gives it his all every night. From his time with the Vancouver Giants and Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League to Providence he’s been a favorite of coaches and front-office folks alike because they always know what they’re going to get. Cunningham has always been a model citizen and the type of player others can look to for guidance. That’s why he was picked at 24 years old to be the P-Bruins’ captain.

“He exemplifies everything we’re looking for in players down here,” Providence coach Bruce Cassidy said earlier this season. “He’s the hardest-working guy in practice, he’s a great teammate. He has been a captain in junior. Even though he’s not an elder statesman, he knows the league, knows me, knows what the expectation is. So there’s other guys we considered but ultimately it came back to him.”

For a fourth-year pro with bigger career aspirations than the AHL, one that started the season on the NHL roster, getting named captain could’ve been seen as a sentence. Instead Cunningham took the ‘C’ as an acknowledgement of how well he was regarded by the Bruins’ brass and did his best to be the leader Cassidy needed him to be while playing as well as he could to make sure the front office didn’t forget about him at call-up time.

In 21 games for Providence, Cunningham had five goals and 15 points.

“Obviously, I think if you talked to every guy in this locker room, their goal is to be the NHL,” Cunningham said after a Providence game last month. Right now I’m here, and I’ll relish the role, and if I get called up there’s such a good group of guys in here that somebody else will step up.”

Unfortunately for Cunningham, roster decisions in the modern-day NHL aren’t always based on merit. The salary cap and long-term contracts that come with no-trade and no-move clauses make it difficult for a player on a two-way contract to push a veteran out of a job. Remember when the regular season opened, general manager Peter Chiarelli had to have Brian Ferlin and Malcolm Subban on his roster to maximize the Bruins’ Long Term Injured Reserve overage. After he cleared waivers, Cunningham was able to stick with Boston for three games because an injury opened up a spot. But then he was shipped back to Providence because the Bruins decided to lean on Gagne on their fourth line.

As the injuries mounted in Boston, Cunningham kept plying his trade with Providence. Although there were open roster spots, they weren’t necessarily jobs that would fit Cunningham. Plus the Bruins wanted to take a look at some other players, and maybe some other organizations wanted to see them as well. This entire Bruins regular season has felt like an extension of training camp. Even before the injury rash you had a feeling players were going to be shuffled up and down from Providence and all over the NHL lineup. The injuries just accelerated that process. Cunningham was only a bit player in that process.

No one here is overrating Cunningham as anything more than a bottom-six forward in the NHL. But this guy plays on the power play at Providence and has shown a knack for making impressive plays in tight quarters in front and around the net. He protects the puck well. Although offensive talent doesn’t always translate from the AHL to the NHL, he’s coming off three straight 20-goal seasons including 25 the past two seasons with the P-Bruins. He might not be the most physical player at 5-foot-10, 184 pounds, but he works hard on the forecheck, plays the angles right and has the smarts to get into passing lanes and support the puck right. These seem like qualities the Bruins have lacked most of the season.

Julien refused to question the decision making going on above him in the front office when asked why Cunningham hasn’t gotten a longer look this season. That’s commendable for a coach that doesn’t want to insult the men who recently gave him a multi-year contract extension. He should be a guy, based on his attitude along, Julien loves.

“I think for me goals come and go and they’ve already stressed to me, make sure the other part of your game is at its top when you’re not scoring,” Cunningham said. “And when I’m not scoring those are the things I try to work on.”

Those words must be music to Julien’s ears. Another guy that’s thinking about his own end above all.

When David Krejci returns from injury, the lineup shuffle will begin again. Cunningham, who has given veterans Chris Kelly and Milan Lucic a youthful jolt of energy the past four periods of 5-on-5 play for the Bruins, will probably wind up on the fourth line with Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille. Cunningham would make that line both younger and faster, two things Chiarelli originally said he wanted before he decided to pull Gagne out of mothballs. What the Bruins have tried with their roster hasn’t worked for most of the first two months of this season. It’s time to see if Cunningham’s youthful energy can help them accumulate the points they need to get back into playoff position.