NEW YORK – It doesn’t necessarily make sense, but you can understand why it happened.
Sure, Cory Conacher never belonged in the ECHL. And yes, it was only a three-game stint where he set the world on fire with the Cincinnati Cyclones just two seasons ago. Undersized and overlooked, the now-Tampa Bay Lightning winger fits the profile of many still in the league today, with his success story providing some hope that players like him down the road don’t get labeled as he once was.
Perhaps generously listed at 5-foot-8 and 179 pounds, the 23-year-old played his college hockey at Canisius, potting a whopping 62 goals over the course of a 129-game NCAA career. But he went undrafted, and bounced around two AHL teams and the Cyclones in an abbreviated first professional season before signing an AHL contract with the Norfolk Admirals the following season.
All he did was post 80 points in 75 regular season games to earn AHL MVP honors and lead his team to a Calder Cup Championship. Along the way, Conacher signed an NHL contract and all of a sudden, the kid who flew under the radar for most of his hockey life was on the cusp of reaching the big time.
He did just that when he made the Lightning out of camp, and made his NHL debut on January 19 against the Washington Capitals. He scored his first career goal that night, posted at least one point in each of his first four games and six of his first seven, and has already racked up six multi-point games with a performance that has thrown his name forcefully into Calder Trophy consideration. Seems like he’s fitting in just fine.
"This is the dream," said Conacher of his so-far brief NHL career.
"I was so happy to be able to make it and play that first game and get that first goal, it was such an awesome, emotional moment for me and my family that were there watching."
To be fair, Conacher was certainly put in a position to perform by head coach Guy Boucher — he’s played on the first line alongside Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis and second line with Vincent Lecavalier and Teddy Purcell — but at the same time, that’s no accident. Conacher earned those spots, and his production has continued to warrant him staying among the top six forwards in Tampa Bay.
"It helps to have the guys in the room that I have here, and the guys that I’ve been playing with have really helped calm me down throughout the season so far," he said. "There are a lot of good leaders on this team, and that’s huge for a young player. I have to give them a lot of credit for my success this year."