Versatile forward Connor Crisp perfectly fit the mold of the type of player Walleye coach Dan Watson sought out when he revamped his roster in pursuit of a deeper playoff push.
At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Crisp brings a physical presence combined with the quickness and ability to produce points. The 23-year-old was signed in the offseason along with several other big-bodied players that are more suited for the playoff grind.
Crisp has blended in nicely, leading Toledo in penalty minutes with 56, but he also ranks seventh on the team in scoring with 18 points. Last weekend, Crisp scored three goals and had an assist to help the Walleye sweep a three-game homestand.
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“He plays physical and in your face,” Watson said. “Connor is a pure power forward with good size and speed. He plays the game the right way and he's being rewarded for it.”
Crisp, who played for Brampton of the ECHL last season, said he wanted to sign with a team that could make a deep playoff run. He said after the Beast were eliminated in the North Division finals, he kept tabs on the Kelly Cup playoffs.
“I followed Toledo,” Crisp said of the Walleye's run to the conference finals last season. “When I played [at the Huntington Center] when I was with Brampton, the fans here were unbelievable. Now I get to live it. That was a huge selling factor to me. I did some research and heard nothing but good things about the talent here.”
Crisp, who has scored nine goals and has nine assists in 29 games, said the team has physical force, but also offensive skill.
“These are bigger guys that will go in the corners. That has rubbed off on everybody,” Crisp said.
Crisp, an easy-going center, mugged for the camera during player intros prior to Sunday's game. The native of Alliston, Ont., said he tries to stay loose.
“It's still a game. I like having fun playing it,” Crisp said. “A lot of people look at this as just a job. That can be stressful. But it's easy being around these guys. They're all so upbeat and laughing. But we're still competing hard and making each other better. We can dial it in and go out and win.”
Watson said Crisp is willing to “get dirty” with a flair for scoring goals in front of the net.
“I'd say power forward is a great way to describe how I play,” Crisp said. “I always had a way to find the net in juniors. But I also had 10 fights a year. “
Crisp said nearly all of his goals come in the high-percentage scoring zones between the hashes in front of the opposition's net. The area between the faceoff circles and in the slot is one of the most fiercely defended on the ice.
“That's where I get a lot of my goals — in that little house area,” Crisp said. “I watch the NHL a lot and you see even the all-star players like [Steven] Stamkos and [Sidney] Crosby score most of their goals in that little area. That's where most of my goals and assists come from.”
Although he does not drop the gloves as much as he did in his junior days, he will fight when it’s deemed necessary. He racked up 139 penalty minutes one season with the Erie Otters in 2012-13, and also led the Sudbury Wolves with 120 the following year.
“The game has changed so much,” he said. “In juniors, you would go square up [for a fight] at center ice. That has left the game a bit. But I will stick up for my teammates against anyone. A huge part of the game is to instill fear in the other team. You want them to know they're not going to take liberties on any of your players. I'm the first guy over [to fight].
“I still love that part of the game. I love to hear the crowd go nuts and the players tapping their sticks.”
On Sunday, Crisp was involved in a scrum in which he and Mike Borkowski stuck up for teammate Luke Esposito. Esposito, a 5-10 skilled forward who has shuffled back and forth from Toledo to the team's AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, has played in only a dozen games for the Walleye. But both Borkowski and Crisp immediately went after Cincinnati's Brandon McNally when he crushed Esposito into the boards after the whistle.
“That's a good example of guys playing for each other,” said Crisp, who was issued a double minor roughing penalty and 10-minute misconduct infraction for continuing an altercation. “We've had guys up and down from Grand Rapids. But when they come down here, we have such a tight bond. It shows our character. We're not afraid to jump in there for each other.”
The Walleye have won four in a row after the team had suffered back-to-back 3-0 shutouts to Fort Wayne and Cincinnati. All four of the wins came against Central Division foes as Toledo (24-10-3) expanded its cushion atop the division to five points over second-place Fort Wayne. Three of the five games were sellouts with crowds of more than 8,000.
“Home ice is always key,” Crisp said. “With the fan support, it's much easier to get up for games. Playing in front of 8,000 every night is huge.”
The team now embarks on a five-game road trip with stops in Kansas City, Reading, and Brampton. The Walleye play three straight games at Kansas City this weekend. The team bus leaves Wednesday at 10 p.m. for the 10-plus-hour trip to Independence, Mo. Crisp, who is in his fourth full season as a pro, said he enjoys the lengthy road trips.
“Things get real fun from here,” Crisp said. “The bus trips are fun. We play cards and other games. It's a luxury to have a sleeper bus. But that kind of sleep isn't always so great.”
Crisp said his top moment thus far in hockey came in 2013 when he was selected in the third round of the 2013 NHL draft by the Montreal Canadiens.
“It was a super nice surprise for me and my family,” Crisp said. “That day I was at a friend's house having a barbeque and playing horseshoes. I got a call from my agent and it was so awesome, especially getting drafted by a team like Montreal, such a storied franchise.”
Crisp, who grew up a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, said he quickly changed allegiance.
“Our whole house had Maple Leafs [memorabilia],” he said. “That all changed to Canadiens [memorabilia] in about a day.”
Crisp has played in 63 AHL games. Over his pro career, has played in 135 career games played with 27 goals, 31 assists, and 249 penalty minutes. During his season with Brampton, Crisp tallied 14 goals and 19 assists for a total of 33 points in 43 games.
“Until the day comes when I hang up my skates, my goal is to play in the NHL,” he said. “To this day, I believe I have the talent and ability to play in the NHL. Everyone wants to get called up and reach that ultimate goal. But Toledo is such a great place to play. I want to be playing hockey here into June.”
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