Clean slate

Monday, 15.07.2013 / 9:35 AM canadiens.com

MONTREAL – Connor Crisp may have garnered notoriety for a one-game stint in goal for the Erie Otters in March 2012, but he’s committed to ensuring his hockey career will ultimately be defined by something else.

With then-starter Ramis Sadikov forced to leave the game against Niagara early on in the first period after colliding with an opposing forward, and backup Devin Williams sidelined with a head injury, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound forward was pressed into action as the designated emergency replacement. Making his first appearance of the season following shoulder surgery, Crisp turned aside 32 of the 45 shots he faced in a 13-4 loss to the IceDogs, and picked up first star honors for helping the Otters stay within striking distance through 40 minutes of play. Accolades aside, however, Crisp isn’t planning on donning goalie equipment again anytime soon.

“[The experience of playing goal against Niagara] comes back sometimes. Obviously, I get questioned on it a lot playing in Erie,” shared the Alliston, ON native, who participated in the Canadiens’ annual development camp in early July after being selected 71st overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. “It was an awesome experience. I think now that I’ve been drafted, it shows that it was a one-time thing. It happened. I did what I did, but I’m here to make a name for myself as a left winger in the Montreal Canadiens organization.”

Passed over during his first year of NHL draft eligibility in 2011-12 after playing only six regular season games with Erie due to injury, Crisp rebounded with a standout OHL campaign that turned heads and earned him a second look. Amassing 22 goals and 36 points in 63 games, the 19-year-old also racked up a team-leading 139 penalty minutes and dropped the gloves nine times on the year for the Otters.

“He’s a heck of an athlete and he’s tough,” confirmed Canadiens director of amateur scouting Trevor Timmins, noting that Crisp tested at or near the top of almost every fitness test at the 2013 Canadiens Combine in early June. “Yes, we addressed a need drafting him. At some point, you have to.”

A self-described power forward who relishes the opportunity to establish position in front of the net and engage physically, Crisp’s relentlessness and competitive spirit quickly caught the eye of Otters head coach Kris Knoblauch who took the reins of the Pennsylvania-based franchise in November 2012. Utilized in a variety of game situations, Crisp was a mainstay on the power play and worked double-duty on special teams as a standout penalty killer during the second half of the 2012-13 campaign.

“I think he’s a very well-rounded player. He understands the game, and he’s a very smart player,” explained the Erie bench boss, pointing out that Crisp has exceptional puck handling and skating skills to go along with a hard-nosed approach to the game. “For a big guy, he’s very composed with the puck. Connor understands that goals are scored right around the net. He likes to go around that area. He’s very skilled at deflecting the puck. It’s something he works on in practice because he understands that if he were to make a living at the game, that’s where he really needs to get. He takes a lot of pride in that area of the game and wants to get better at it.”

Focused on translating his rugged style of play from OHL to NHL rinks at some point in the not-so-distant future, Crisp will rely on his maturity and mental toughness to eventually reach his on-ice potential.

“Connor spends an endless amount of time in the weight room and it’s all on his own. A lot of Junior-age players don’t have that drive,” mentioned Knoblauch, who expects his pupil to assume a significant leadership role both on and off the ice next season while upping his offensive consistency. “I think [the 2011-12 season] was a little bit hard on him without getting to play a lot because of the injury. Sometimes I think that’s an eye-opener for players. They realize how easily the game can be taken away from them. I think he’s making the most [of the opportunities he has now].”

Already looking ahead to receiving an invite to the Canadiens’ rookie camp in September, Crisp is well aware that the road to becoming a full-time NHLer is paved through hard work and dedication. Fortunately for him, his family tree includes former NHL head coach Terry Crisp and NHL scout Jeff Crisp, teachings like that have been instilled in him throughout his hockey career.

“I think the biggest thing [they taught me was] just to keep your head on straight,” mentioned Crisp, who cited his quickness and stickhandling ability in-tight as areas of his game he’s looking to improve on going forward. “You get a lot of attention sometimes, especially growing up in minor hockey. People have high hopes for you and you can’t let it go to your head. You’ve got to go to practice every day and do what you’re supposed to do and just get better every day.

“[Former Otters head coach] Robbie Ftorek [also] really helped me understand the game,” he continued. “He taught me things about the game that I didn’t even know existed. He would go on the ice for two hours before practice and work on his skills as a retired hockey player. He told us all the time – ‘You’ve got to love the game. You’ve got to want to be here. That’s what’s going to get you places.’”

With those lessons in mind, Crisp is certainly on his way.

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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