ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — You likely don’t know Cory Conacher‘s name yet.
The 22-year-old former Cincinnati Cyclones forward signed his first NHL contract today with the Tampa Bay Lightning after tearing up the AHL all season long with the Norfolk Admirals. According to reports out of Florida, it’s a two-year, two-way deal. Now, it’s up to Conacher to impress the organization enough to get his first opportunity at the next level.
"It’s obviously up to Tampa Bay and their organization. I love the organization and I have full trust in them making the right decision," Conacher told ECHL.com about a possible call-up.
"If they give me that chance, I’m obviously going to work even harder and not take it for granted. If they don’t, I’ll stay down in Norfolk and continue to succeed and improve my game. I like the organization, and I like Steve Yzerman and what he’s doing. Hopefully I can continue with this team."
The Lightning would be wise to lock up the 5-foot-8, 175 pounder, who has posted 29 goals and 34 assists in 56 games with the Admirals this season. He was the league’s leading goal-scorer at the time of the AHL All-Star Game, which is when ECHL.com caught up with both Conacher and his impressed teammate, Trevor Smith.
"I think he’s got a big bag of tricks up his sleeve," said Smith, another ECHL alum who has earned two NHL call-ups this season.
"He’s got wheels, he flies around like a little cannonball out there. Some plays, you think guys would slow down, but he takes that extra stride and speeds up. He has that extra element of speed, and his vision, he sees the ice so well. He’s at the top of the charts in goals for a reason, he shoots the puck real well."
Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of him, as the personable Burlington, Ontario native has been overlooked his whole hockey life.
Conacher played for four years in relative obscurity at Canisius College before signing a tryout agreement with the AHL’s Rochester Americans at the end of the 2010-11 season.
"It was awesome to get that experience and to get a chance to play," Conacher said.
"I played those two games in Rochester to start off the pro experience, and then they sent me down to Cincinnati. The coach down in Cincinnati, Jarrod Skalde, he gave me a wicked opportunity to play and I got along with all the guys on the team. I knew one of the guys on the team already, so it was easy going in there. It’s a good league and I had fun down there. It was a nice place to play, I enjoyed it."
Conacher played just three games for the Cyclones, but made it look easy, scoring five goals and adding two assists. Turns out that bag of tricks Smith spoke about includes humility as well.
"We had some good players on our team, and that’s a credit to the guys I played with," Conacher said. "Some of the hockey gods came down and helped me out, and I got a couple good bounces."
Conacher returned to the AHL after his brief stint with the Cyclones, but this time joined the Milwaukee Admirals, where he played in five regular season and seven postseason contests. But despite five points in the five regular season contests with Milwaukee, he couldn’t land a contract for the following season and agreed to an AHL deal with Norfolk for 2011-12. He credits his brief stint in the ECHL for his very smooth jump to the next level.
"It’s obviously a little quicker and there’s some more experienced and talented guys in the AHL, but I think you learn a lot in the ECHL and you can get better and adapt in the AHL," Conacher said. "The ECHL is a really good league and we have guys called up from the ECHL all the time to play with us in Norfolk."
Even with excellent production wherever he’s been, his breakout year in the AHL was more than Conacher was expecting coming into the season.
"It’s definitely been a surprise, even just to be at the All-Star Game, it’s a great honor," he said.
"Jon Cooper is another great coach, and he’s given me a great opportunity to be on the power play and on the first or second line. That’s all it takes, just to get that chance. Now I have to take advantage of it; just getting better every day in practice and using it in game situations."