At one point, it looked as if Cory Conacher's NHL career had hit a dead end.
It was a promising start for Conacher. After an impressive four-year collegiate career at Canisius, he won the 2012 Calder Cup with the Norfolk Admirals and captured the American Hockey League's Rookie of the Year award.
The next season he made his first NHL roster out of training camp, landing with the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was going pretty well for the first 35 games. Then he was traded to Ottawa. And Conacher kind of lost his way.
He bounced to Buffalo then to the New York Islanders before finding himself back in the American Hockey League on a full-time basis.
That's when Conacher decided to go to Europe and after a breakout season with SC Bern in the top professional hockey league in Switzerland, he resurrected his NHL career.
"The reason I went over was just to find a second wind," Conacher said Tuesday afternoon in KeyBank Center. Conacher was a healthy scratch for the Tampa Bay Lightning as they faced the Sabres, but his attitude toward sitting out of the lineup and in looking at his minutes per game is vastly different in his second NHL stint.
It started with the year he spent in Switzerland, playing for Guy Boucher, who was the Lightning's head coach when Conacher was an NHL rookie to start the 2012-13 season.
"I knew with him he'd give me a chance to play and play a lot of minutes and just to find my game again," Conacher said. More minutes and a familiar, supportive coach were among the things that helped Conacher rediscover his offensive game.
It’s always great to have our alumni come and visit us when they are back in Buffalo! Thanks to @conhockey19 for stopping by practice today to spend some time with the boys before he and the @TBLightning take on the Sabres tonight #canisiusalumni #ncaahockey #Griffsinthepros pic.twitter.com/BZq11FPWNp
— Canisius Hockey (@GriffsHockey) February 13, 2018
"Going to Europe there's less contract, it's more offensive so you have more room to get your offensive skills back," he said. "There's a lot of power plays and the ice is bigger so there's a lot more room for guys like me to make plays and make offensive plays I think that definitely helped for sure."
After a successful season for SC Bern, where he scored 22 goals with 30 assists and helped the team win the post-season title, Conacher had a window in his contract to sign with an NHL team. He contacted Jon Cooper, now the head coach of Tampa Bay, who was familiar with Conacher from their shared time in Norfolk in the 2011-12 season.
With one day to spare, Cooper made the pitch for his former player and the Lightning signed him to a one-year deal.
"The one thing he brings is he brings energy," Cooper said of Conacher. "He's smaller in stature but he's got the big heart. He's never really out of a play because he's always working. Then when he gets that chance to shoot a puck, there's a good chance that baby's going in because he has that natural scorer's ability. So the kid can make plays and when we need an energy boost, Cory is one of the guys for that."
Conacher spent most of last season with the Lightning's AHL team in Syracuse, but earned a two-year deal with the Lightning over the summer. He has found a niche with Tampa Bay, the team atop the NHL standings and a contender for a Stanley Cup.
And now, in his second go-round in the National Hockey League, Conacher has a different outlook. He started the season with Syracuse but found his way back up to the Lightning. He's played 24 games for the Bolts this season with six goals, including cashing in his first career penalty shot on Feb. 3 at Vancouver. But whether he's in the lineup or not, Conacher knows he can contribute -- a different mentality from his first taste of the NHL.
"Obviously I'm a very competitive guy," Conacher said. "There's times when you get frustrated, you want to play a little more but that's not going to help the team win games necessarily. You've got to do what it takes to help this team and if it's playing 10 minutes you've got to make sure those 10 minutes are your best 10 minutes and that's what I've come to understand.
"As a young guy when I first started I'd be getting frustrated, I'd be negative on the bench, I'd show all those emotions and it would rub the wrong way for a lot of guys. You don't want that to happen here. Whenever you get the call to get on the ice or into the game, then you've got to play however many minutes you've got to play to your best and that's what I'm trying to do."