At 5’8 and 155 pounds, center Luke Cairns is the smallest member of the Erie Otters. But the Stoney Creek, ON, native is expected to play a big role in any success the franchise earns this season — which can only benefit him during his draft-eligible year.
"I think this year, the guys my age are getting a lot more of an opportunity to step up and take that role as veterans," Cairn said. "Last year we didn’t start the beginning of the year all that well either, but we’re getting a lot more ice out there and hopefully we can make the most of it."
After missing the start of the season due to an injury, Cairns is making up for lost time. To date, he’s scored three goals and added three assists in six games. But personal success hasn’t translated to team success as the Otters have only one win in nine matches.
Cairns has benefitted from a strong showing towards the end of last season, where he scored six goals and added 12 assists. Those opportunities last season have translated into the coaching staff trusting him to fill an increased role with the 2011-12 edition of the Otters.
"He had a tough beginning because he was injured and he didn’t get the practice time that was needed, but Cairnsey played a lot for us last year — he played on the power play, he killed penalty, he was on the top two units," Erie head coach Robbie Ftorek explained. "He has a good head on his shoulders, he’s much stronger than a lot of people think, he’s got good hockey sense, and he’s a great kid — he’s a happy-go-lucky kid."
And playing alongside two of the Otters’ top players hasn’t hurt his performance at all, either. "I think I started out this year fairly well. I started out the year playing with [Brett] Thompson and [Toronto Maple Leafs‘ prospect Greg] McKegg, who are two good guys to play with," Cairns said. "You get chances with those guys and some of those bounces have been working out, so I think I’ve been doing pretty well up to this point and I hope I can keep it going."
McKegg may not be long for the Otters’ roster as there have been strong rumors that he will find himself traded away for future pieces as part of Erie’s rebuilding efforts. In the meantime, Cairns has taken the opportunity to learn from McKegg and the team’s other drafted veterans on how to deal with the pressures of his draft-eligible season.
"I talk to Kegger about it all the time and he says the same thing: just not to think about it too much, things will come and things will happen," Cairns explained. "It’s kind of like the same thing in minor midget during your OHL draft year. It is there, you’ve got to know it’s there. You have to work extra hard and hopefully I’ll have a good year.
"I try not to think about it too much because I do get a little nervous sometimes, but I try to block that out when I’m out there. You just try not to think about it."
Ftorek added that the veterans sharing their experience and knowledge is integral to both team and personal success. "It’s very critical. You saw [Phil] Varone come into our team last year and what he did with our team. It helped Kegger and a lot of other guys go to another level that we hadn’t seen in Erie, because he had good success [in London] and good success in Kitchener, and he brought that with him," Ftorek explained. "It was very very important for our kids to see that. Now it’s important for our kids to transfer that onto our new guys coming in. It’s very important for the veterans to show the younger players how they’re supposed to act and perform and work, and other things like that."
Cairns is known for his offensive abilities, but he said he’s making a concerted effort to improve his play at both ends of the ice.
"I’d like to become a better defensive player. When I get the puck I like to go offense and try to get a few points, but a big part of the game is defense," he said. "Last year, I worked on that part of the game a lot — [Erie head coach] Robbie [Ftorek] helped me out a lot; this year I think I got a lot better, but I still have a lot to work on."
Ftorek agreed with Cairn’s self-assessment. "He’s got to work on it, he knows he’s got to work on it, and we’re working on it," Ftorek explained. "We have to continually work with him to make sure he knows his defensive responsibilities. He’ll stop stick-handling and shoot the puck or carry the puck instead of stick-handling and he’ll create turnovers for himself.
"He’s got a lot of things he needs to work on, but he’s got great upside."
In addition to the defensive play, Cairn knows his size may be an issue. As a result, he’s on a dietary regimen that much of the world would be envious of.
"I need to get more stronger because at the next level the guys are bigger and stronger. I have to gain more weight out there on the ice and hopefully that will help my play," Cairns explained. "Basically I just try to eat a lot; that’s all I can do! Basically I try to eat everything I can and keep my cardio up."
Even with McKegg still donning the Otters’ colors, Erie’s youth is the beneficiary of increased opportunities and exposure. It’s something that Ftorek said wasn’t necessarily part of the plan and how it works out depends in large part upon the player.
"It can be [a benefit] and it can’t be. It’s one of those double-edged swords. We’re not supposed to be a young team. We haven’t had the opportunity to bring in some of the older guys who are supposed to be here, so that our younger players can develop at the right rate," Ftorek explained. "They’ve been put into some tough situations, but it’s a great thing because we can see how they perform and how they react and see if they rise to the occasion.
While Cairns espoused the generic party line about being happy to be drafted by anyone, his proximity to Hamilton during his youth did leave an impression — but he also looks a little further down Highway 401 for inspiration..
"I’ve always been kind of a Leaf guy — you know, being from Hamilton, I went to a couple of games. But honestly I like to watch Pavel Datsyuk. I like the [Detroit] Red Wings a lot — they’re a veteran team and I try to pick up some stuff off of him, but it’s pretty tough to do the type of things he does out there.
"[Being selected by] any team would be awesome, it’d be a dream come true. I think it would be awesome to play in Detroit — and then there’s the Toronto Maple Leafs, that’d be awesome too. I could have a bunch, honestly!"