Whenever the recent resurgence of the Tampa Bay Lightning is discussed, there are a few players that always come to mind. Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov established themselves as NHL mainstays with the Lightning over the last five years, with their impact on the team being a large part of their recent success. Looking back, though, there is a player who is often left out of the discussion who had as big of an impact on the Lightning franchise as any of these players. That player is Cory Conacher.
When Conacher joined the Lightning’s then-AHL affiliate the Norfolk Admirals in 2011, he came in as an undrafted free agent with little fanfare. By the end of his rookie season, he was not only a major player in the Admirals winning their first Calder Cup, he was also named the league’s MVP.
Conacher endeared himself to the Lightning fan base, earning the nickname “Honey Badger” with his resilient play. After a strong start to his Lightning career in 2012-13, Conacher was traded to the Ottawa Senators despite appearing to be a cornerstone for the franchise.
Trading Conacher for Ben Bishop
The trade that sent Conacher to Ottawa and Ben Bishop to the Lightning is often seen as one-sided, as the Lightning got close to five years of outstanding play from Bishop while Ottawa stuck with Conacher for only a year. At the time of the trade, though, Lightning fans were outraged to see a potential emerging star like Conacher dealt for an unproven backup goaltender who was traded just a year prior for a second-round draft pick.
While Bishop went on to establish himself as one of the best goaltenders in the Lightning’s history, Conacher struggled to find a place in the league. After bouncing around a handful of NHL teams, he went on to play in Sweden with SC Bern in 2015.
While playing for SC Bern, he put up 22 goals and 52 points in the regular season and looked comfortable with the team. Instead of staying in a comfortable role, however, Conacher decided to return to play for Tampa Bay after receiving a one-year, two-way contract offer from the franchise.
— Cory Conacher (@conhockey19) June 28, 2017
Since returning to the Lightning, Conacher has played a similar role with the team as when he first joined the club out of college. While largely being relegated to the Syracuse Crunch, Conacher has been a leader both on and off the ice. He put up 60 points with the Crunch last season, with an additional 28 in the playoffs as the Crunch made it to the Calder Final.
Conacher in the Right Place at the Right Time
While being recalled with the Lightning, Conacher is looking to, once again, find a permanent place with the franchise. Normally it would take the loss of a player to open a roster spot, but this year the Lightning are in a unique situation.
For the majority the season, the team has played with 11 forwards and seven defensemen instead of the normal 12 forwards and six defensemen. While the Lightning have found a lot of success with a floating winger, there’s still been talk that the Lightning will eventually look to fill this gap in their lineup.
While the Lightning could attempt to land a high-profile winger before the trade deadline, they would prefer to look inward at their current prospect pool. While there are players with the Crunch who are looking for a spot with the big club, it feels counterproductive to break up a Crunch team that is finally clicking. While a player like Adam Erne may bring more of a physical edge than Conacher, he is currently developing a chemistry with the rest of the Crunch that is difficult to replicate if he is dropped into the Lightning’s lineup halfway through the year.
Besides, no player on the Crunch has what the Lightning need right now: experience. The Lightning are in win-now mode, so this is not the time to be trying out young players who are inexperienced in the league. Sometimes giving young players a shot in the league pays off at the start of the year, but now is not the time to be implementing too many new names to the lineup.
Putting in His Hard Work
For now, Conacher has a few months to show that he deserves the spot in the lineup. During his current call-up, he has averaged around nine minutes a night. When the Lightning play bigger, more physical teams like the St. Louis Blues, you can see that Conacher struggles to find his footing on the ice.
With the majority of the Lightning’s December schedule taking place on the road against Western Conference teams, Conacher needs to show that he can contribute even when his speed game is neutralized. This month will either cement Conacher’s place in the lineup or put back in Syracuse for the rest of the season.
While he may never have the same breakout potential like he did at the start of the 2012-13 season, there’s no player in the Lightning’s system who has earned his time more than Conacher. He has put in years with the franchise, and the fact that he has stuck with the Lightning despite being relegated to the minor league shows his will to play in the NHL. While the Lightning could get a flashier player at the trade deadline, there’s no one who wants to be with the team more than “Honey Badger.”