When the Tampa Bay Lightning waived Cory Conacher last month, they boosted the winger’s confidence and rewarded his service to the organization.
“Before they sent me down, they said, ‘I’m an NHL player and everyone in the lineup is also an NHL player,’” said Conacher, the American Hockey League’s leading scorer with 25 points in only 12 games with the Syracuse Crunch.
Conacher, 28, was simply the odd man out for one of the NHL’s deepest teams. After waiving him, the Lightning awarded the Canisius College product with a one-year, one-way contract worth $700,000.
In addition to securing valuable depth for another season, the extension possibly deterred other teams from claiming Conacher.
“Mixed emotions, it’s a low to high,” Conacher said of getting waived. “You never want to go down to the farm, you always want to be up in the NHL, play in the NHL. For them to show me the loyalty and how much they like me … was also a high.”
Conacher, who has played 189 NHL games, including 19 with the Sabres, said the Lightning told him he still fits in the team’s plans.
“I still believe I’m capable enough of playing in the NHL,” said Conacher, whose only game in the Lightning lineup this season was the opener. “It’s a matter of me being patient. When it’s my turn to be called upon, I got to be ready for that.”
Conacher has embraced his demotion to Syracuse, a city he knows well. He played with the affiliate in 2012-13 before stints over the last three seasons.
“Coming down here, I wasn’t hanging my head at all,” Conacher said.
The Lightning, of course, expect Conacher to help mentor their prospects. But he is more than a veteran presence. Right now, he’s the AHL’s most lethal scoring threat. He has compiled a whopping 22 points in the last nine contests.
“Everything’s clicking right now,” Conacher said.
That’s not a coincidence, either. Conacher said he has evolved – he kills penalties and believes his improved defense helps create offense – over the years.
“This is the best I’ve felt in terms of my confidence and just my maturity and the way my body feels,” Conacher said. “I’m 28, that’s still pretty young. But at the same time, I’m a more mature 28-year-old. I know the pro game. You gain confidence after being in the NHL.”
Conacher has been an elite AHL scorer from the get-go. He earned league MVP and rookie of the year honors thanks to a 39-goal, 80-point season in 2011-12, when he won the Calder Cup with the Norfolk Admirals.
In 253 AHL appearances, Conacher has scored 100 goals and 253 points.
Conacher has become the classic “tweener,” meaning he’s often a dominant AHL player but that success hasn’t translated to the NHL. He has compiled 28 goals and 74 points in the big leagues.
“It’s always in the back of my head that I know I can play in the NHL, I know there’s a spot for me in the NHL,” Conacher said. “Tampa Bay’s so deep and their team up there, they’re so stacked, they can’t pull a guy out of the lineup.
“There’s not a guy in the lineup that shouldn’t be in the lineup. All the guys in the lineup should be in the NHL. I was one of those guys.”
If Conacher stays with the Crunch, he will be well-acquainted with the Rochester Americans, the Sabres’ affiliate.
The teams play each other 10 more times this season, a rivalry Conacher said “is going to be huge down the stretch.”
The first-place Amerks lead the Crunch by three points (26-23) in the North Division, although Syracuse has played two fewer games.
“There’s a lot of players on that team that could play in the NHL,” Conacher said of the Amerks.
Conacher said the Amerks’ defense is so slick – veteran Zach Redmond has already scored 13 goals – the Crunch game plan around the blue line.
“They have good offensive defensemen we pretty much … structure our game around just because of how aggressive and how offensive their defensemen (are),” Conacher said.