After a full season lost to the 2004-05 lockout, the NHL emerged with different rules on two completely different levels. First, the institution of a salary cap completely changed the financials for building teams and made for a chaotic summer of 2005. There were bidding wars for the volume of free agents from not one but two years of expiring contracts. At the same time there were teams that needed to buy out players to make the new salary cap limits. The other significant change was the set of rules and enforcement of them on the ice. The red line was eliminated making two-line passes legal and creating a new ability to pass the puck from inside of the defensive blue line to the far blue line. And the league committed to finally enforcing the written rules and eliminating holding, hooking and other obstruction to impede speedier players illegally.
The combination of these changes delivered Cory Stillman to the Hurricanes and helped propel him to a phenomenal 2005-06 season. Despite being part of a Stanley Cup-winning Tampa team in 2003-04, Stillman was let go when the new salary cap did not allow enough money to keep the Lightning team intact. And his combination of slick passing and playmaking combined with two speedy young wings played right into the rule changes.
If Eric Staal and Erik Cole were the models for new NHL scorers (which they were), then Cory Stillman was the fuel that made them go. Cory Stillman almost instantly developed a knack for coming back toward his defensemen to receive short passes inside of his defensive blue line and seemingly know exactly where he was going with the puck before he had it. The result was a flying brand of north-south hockey that saw Stillman springing power forwards Eric Staal and Erik Cole for breakaways and odd man rushes regularly. When the regular season was all said and done, Eric Staal had vaulted from a meager 11 goals and 20 assists in his 2003-04 rookie season to an astounding 45 goals and 55 assists for an even 100 points in 2005-06. Sure, Eric Staal improved with the full year in the AHL during the lockout. Sure the rule changes helped a bit. But Cory Stillman’s new NHL playmaking had a huge role in Eric Staal’s breakout season. The same occurred for Erik Cole. At the point when he was felled by injury, Cole was on pace for 40 goals and 40 assists which was about double his previous high of 42 points. Cory Stillman finished the 2005-06 season with a big 21 goals and 55 assists in 72 games. I think one can make a strong case that this line was the best in Hurricanes history and that Cory Stillman was the leader of it despite the fact that his line mates scored more.
Stillman was similarly impressive and productive in the playoffs that followed. He finished second only to line mate Eric Staal in scoring with 26 points in 25 games including three game-winning goals. He was a model of consistency registering at least one scoring point in 21 of the Canes 25 playoff games and also a provider of clutch plays. And when people were bandying around Conn-Smythe possibilities during the Finals, Cory Stillman was right in the middle of it.
Stillman went on to play most of two more seasons with the Canes before being traded and then ultimately returning for short run of 21 games to close out his career in the 2010-11 season. He collected 52 goals and 113 assists in 191 games with the Hurricanes, but his place in Canes history was primarily carved out during his run as the playmaking leader of arguably the team’s best line in history which led the team in scoring on its way to the 2006 Stanley Cup championship.