This has been a long time coming.
I've been tough on the old man in the past. Last season, when Mike Keenan chose Conroy over ostensibly superior options like Mike Cammalleri, Daymond Langkow and (arguably) Matthew Lombardi to skate with Jarome Iginla on the Flames top scoring unit, I accused him of having Svengali like powers of persuasion over the coaching staff. It struck me as unfathomable that an aging, offensively mediocre player would continually be tapped to play with the club's best winger. I became even more shrill in my denunciations when Conroy struggled to find defensive assignments and keep his stick from opponent's mid-sections to start the year.
Conroy has spent most of his time away from Jarome thus far this year. In fact, he's been skating with 4th liners the last few games. However, in Montreal with the Flames nursing a one goal lead in the final half of the third period, there was Craig Conroy - centering the shaky duo of Olli Jokinen and Jarome Iginla.
And I was glad to see it. It struck me then that I owe Craig Conroy a very big apology.
Dude is quality - and always has been. A former Selke nominee, it's time someone acknowledged, clearly and unequivocally, that Conroy is a boon to the club. His hands have begun to abandon him now that's he's 37, but he can still skate, still take care of the defensive zone and still move the puck in the right direction. This year, Conroy has a solid relative corsi rating (+5.5/60) even though he has the second worst zone start ratio on the club behind only the captain (42.7% OFD).
Last season, when he wasn't playing with Iginla, Conroy centered the outstanding third line which included David Moss and Curtis Glencross. That trio ate their competitors for breakfast on a nightly basis, with all three finishing amongst the team leaders in corsi rates. Conroy was also very quietly the Flames most efficient producer at ES (2.73 ESP/60) behind Rene Bourque. All for a million bucks.
For years, the common refrain about the Flames was a lack of a "legitimate first line center" for Iginla. Even when Conroy managed 27 goals and 75 points beside Jarome in 2001-2002, it was generally assumed that Conroy was merely riding the coattails of his superstar linemate and that an inanimate object could have put up similar numbers in those circumstances that season. I was of a similar mind for awhile, but it's a contention I would emphatically deny now. Iginla was +27 that year. Conroy was +24. McAmmond was +2. Everyone else was well under water. Of course, Jarome was amazing...but Conroy no doubt a contributor to Iginla's break-out, rather than a mere parasite. Because, there's a reason Craig has stuck to Iginla through the years and the various coaching iterations - and it's not just because he's likable. He simply knows what he's doing on the ice. Spectacular at nothing, Conroy is in nonetheless good at everything. He can kill penalties. He can check the bad guys stars. He can play the man advantage. He can take draws in any zone. You can put a letter on his chest without hesitation. He isn't a tough guy, he's not a special teams specialist and he's not going to make any of the highlight reels. But the puck goes North when he's on the ice, and sometimes I'm at loss to figure out how he does it. Just does.
There are, of course, off-ice reasons to commend the Flames elder statesman. Gregarious and open, Conroy manages to be engaging in front of the press without being grating (like Jeremy Roenick) or an asshole (like Sean Avery). He mixes wide-eyed enthusiasm with candor - which is refreshing for fans used to the resuscitation of bland cliches by the majority of his peers. It's rumored that one of the reasons Sutte re-aquired Conroy after his stint in LA was his positive influence on the dressing room and Jarome himself: meaning, Conroy's demeanor in front of microphones is no mere affectation. He comes by his infectious positivity honestly.
I don't know what the future holds for Craig. This is the final year of his contract with Calgary. maybe he'll re-sign, maybe he'll retire. Either way, I hope he remains a Calgary Flame till the end of his playing days.
Here's to you, Craig. I'm sorry I ever doubted you. And thanks.