February 05 2013 11:17AM
(Our JetsNation contributor search continues. Today Kevin McCartney takes a look at Tampa Bay rookie sensation Cory Conacher, a Se division player the Jets will face frequently this year)
- Cory Conacher, LW, TB
- Nickname: Honey Badger 5’8”, 175lbs
I have a special connection to Conacher. I drafted him in the 15th round of my fantasy draft this year amidst stifled laughter and hushed whispers of ‘who?’ I feel like that makes me an expert.
Most of you reading this today have heard of this guy. If you’re in a fantasy league, you’ve definitely heard of this guy. Lately his name is always followed by ‘early favourite for the Calder.’ Bob McKenzie, not surprisingly, had the scoop on this with a tweet along the same lines in October. But even two months ago, Conacher was an unknown asset in the pipeline of a Tampa Bay team that has struggled so badly to fill the portside of its roster as to sign Benoit Pouliot as a potential top 6 winger. So I wondered - is Conacher destined to the fate of Tanguay or Simon Gagne before him, or should Jets fans get used to seeing 89 in white? And who will we be watching, really?
Another Marty St. Louis?
I’m sure you’ve heard the same in-depth analysis as I have. “[H]e is cut from the same cloth as Martin St. Louis.” Though not proven, “it all fits — undersized, underdog, the college route…, never drafted, free agent, always with something to prove.” “The next Martin St. Louis?”
Let’s start with this: he’s not Martin St Louis, despite their many similarities. He’s also no slouch.
Conacher has had considerable on-ice success leading to his NHL debut. Undrafted out of the OPJHL, Conacher joined Canisius College, a small private Catholic school in Buffalo with a Div 1 program since Johnny VanB was on the cover of NHL 97.
Conacher was the youngest player in the Atlantic division his Freshman year but neverthless led the team in points per game (0.85). He would later graduate with 12 career, single season, and single game records for the Golden Griffins. Conacher was also named to the Atlantic All Academic team three out of his four years.
His Junior year, Conacher was second nationally with 1.51 points per game, was on the 1st All-Conference team, and won Atlantic Player of the Year. In his Senior year, he was named to the first Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award All-American team. Kid can roll. But Conacher has an uneasy relationship with the word ‘class.’ That same Senior year, Conacher not only led his team in goals (by 9), points (by 7), and shots (by 51), he also led the team in PIMs (by 12).
That profile is not an aberration for Conacher. His first full professional year with Norfolk in 2011/12 was outstanding – leading the Calder winning Admirals in goals and points. Conacher became only the fourth player in history to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same AHL season. He was also third on his team in PIMs with 114!
Let’s talk to the experts. Said his coach (the much heralded) John Cooper, “Cory thrives on emotion, and you don’t want to take that away from him. But sometimes where he channels his emotions derails him.” Cory himself seems to be building an insanity defence. “I get in a zone, and I’m too intense sometimes,” Conacher told reporters after a bad penalty in the playoffs. “I’m not really thinking at the time it happens.”
By my count, Conacher took 54 minutes in violent penalties, and another 24 for running his mouth. St Louis is well known for not shying away from contact, but at this point, it seems unlikely that Conacher will be a two time winner of the Lady Byng like his role model on Tampa Bay.
Okay – not St. Louis. Then who? Let’s dig through some comparables.
Fleury and Speck
In an article by Jim Hodges of the Viginian Pilot (found reproduced here), Pat Verbeek (now Tampa Bay’s Assistant GM) compared Conacher to himself. “He plays with an edge,” Verbeek said. “That’s how I had to play.” To anyone who remembers Verbeek’s high-scoring, high-sticking success in the early ‘90’s, it’s high praise. (Aside: can anyone explain this guy’s 57 rating in NHLPA hockey? Seriously, Russ Courtnall is an 82 and Pat Verbeek is a 57?!) Still, Verbeek was highly touted – Sudbury’s 3rd overall pick in ’81 Priority Draft, and taken a year later 43rd overall into the NHL.
To prairie folk, another squat and temperamental player comes to mind – Theoren ‘Theodore’ Fleury. Fleury’s particular case comes with a great deal of emotional turmoil that I neither want to make light of or impose on Conacher. In fact, Conacher is said to live a very regimented life style since being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a child. Neverthless, he’s a small, angry guy with a big mouth who scores a lot. It’s hard not think of Fleury.
The other three men to win AHL Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season offer us another comparison – perhaps a book end to compliment the lofty hopes of Verbeek or Fleury. The first player to win both awards was the similarly sized (5’8”/170) but mostly gentle Bill Hicke in 1958/59. Pelle Lindbergh was the most recent winner (1980/81), but is of course a goalie (also listed at 5’9”/170, for the record). Left-handed, under-sized centre Fred Speck was the only other player to do it and seems to fit the Conacher moniker. (Why are they all small?)
Speck won both as a 5’9” 22 year old in 1970/71. The reason you’ve never heard of him is because you’re not from Hamilton and because he only played 28 games in the NHL, mostly for the expansion Canucks in their second season. The Hamilton Spectator article about Speck’s local legend status includes a tidbit about how he fought so often that his mom wouldn’t watch him play, and his PIMs attest to it. Plus the guy had speed and mits enough to impress a Mahovlich (Peter, but still…).
What separates a Theo Fleury from a Fred Speck? I sometimes think that it’s such a small margin of subjective evaluation that it can lead people to make up reasons – heart, desire – or assume there was a broader difference in talent than really existed. Which one is Conacher? I can only answer that he’s probably both, and the path he takes will depend more on opportunity than anything.
Daniel Wagner recently wrote about Conacher’s extreme luck to start his NHL career. To summarize, Conacher has poor corsi against weak opposition and a PDO through the roof. “What?!” you say? Well, that means he’s riding a lot of luck right now and the bottom has to fall out sometime. That said, if Fred Speck had the luck to score 9 points in his first handful of games with Detroit, he probably would have stuck and maybe been pushed up the depth chart like Conacher is now, and line mates make a big difference – just ask Jonathan Cheechoo.
Conacher has shown high end, world class results for three years running, including at arguably the toughest professional league outside the NHL. It’s possible this fast start is all he needs to be a cap-friendly staple on the Tampa Bay left wing for the foreseeable future, even after his luck fades come spring (cue the consistency articles).
But it will likely fade. Now I just have to trade him for St Louis before it does…