Cory Conacher Passes through Waivers: Is this the end?

Cory Conacher is not a well-known player in the NHL, even after stints in four markets. An undrafted college free-agent signing by the Lightning, he steamrolled the AHL as a 5’8″ 21 year old after being told he might never walk properly as an infant and living with type 1 diabetes since childhood. He entered the NHL as a walking made-for-tv underdog story. Shortly after he obliterated the Jets (the first time) as a rookie with the Lightning, we had an in-depth (and I must say well-written) look at him here

Since then, he’s had himself a whirlwind tour of some of the worst places to play hockey in the NHL – Ottawa, Buffalo, and finally Long Island. Turning 25 tomorrow, he boasts 141 NHL games of experience, including 58 points and 84 PIMs (the man is a firecracker).  

He also just cleared waivers despite a very cap friendly $600K contract that expires at the end of the season. 

Is this the end of Cory Conacher in the NHL? Or can he still offer something to an NHL team? 

Why was he on waivers?

Cory Conacher might be Steve Yzerman’s greatest accomplishment as a General Manager. At first, Conacher revealed an impressive asset acquisition strategy as a college free agent who led the Norfolk Admirals to their first ever championship as a rookie professional. After setting 12 college records, he overshadowed now NHL-regulars Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat in the AHL, putting up 113 points in 116 career AHL games. 

Called up immediately after the lockout ended in 2013, Conacher posted 12 points in his first 7 NHL games, and 24 in his first 35 when Yzerman traded him for Ben Bishop. Bishop, of course, went on to be a Vezina candidate while things haven’t looked as bright since for Conacher. I suspect everyone is comfortable with the idea that Brian Murray was hoodwinked on the deal. After all, Conacher put up just 25 points in 72 games for the Sens before being placed on waivers and picked up by the Sabres.

The picture that emerges from those stats are of a player on a hot streak being revealed as a bust as he moved around the league. There’s a fair argument in that. However, there are a number of other causal mechanisms at work that make me think Cory Conacher is not the latest iteration of Rob Schremp. 

His greatest professional successes came under John Cooper, who moved with Conacher from the AHL to the NHL in the Lightning system. Under Cooper, Conacher’s penchant for aggression and agitation were encouraged. He was 4th in PIMs with 114 during the championship season in Norfolk and Cooper spoke about how Conacher had to get into the game emotionally to be successful.

During his first 20 games under Cooper with the Lightning, he gave Conacher every chance to get involved with an average of 15:25 in ice time. He spent April with Ottawa where he averaged less than 13 minutes. In his second season, he was down to 12 minutes with a handful of healthy scratches.

His linemate quality also decreased, from commonly playing with Stamkos and Purcell to 2012 Mika Zibinejad being his more common linemate. From the first line of the Lightning to the third line of the Senators. His second season he switched wings before joining the historically bad 2013 Sabres for just 19 meaningless games. In the same way his NHL career took off with a hot streak, 2014 started with a cold streak. He got an opportunity with Tavares and Okposo, but couldn’t cash for points. Their underlying numbers were strong, but his demotion was dramatic. His next most common linemates were Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck, and Casey Cizikas – the bruising squad.

He fell off the roster with a 4% scoring rate while playing limited minutes with people paid to hit.  

What Can He Add to the Jets?

There’s a simple truth about the 2014/15 Jets – they struggle to score goals.

True, it’s the best start to a season on record, the goalies aren’t defying the laws of hockey by letting in more goals than the other team had scoring chances, and the team has something called ‘structure’ – a word Claude Noel only learned during a Frank Gehry exhibition. But the 25th ranked even strength offence and 23rd ranked powerplay could still use some help.

Scoring has improved since Byfuglien moved back to defence, with 17 goals in the last 4 games. Evander Kane is pulling back in after suspension to put TJ Galiardi in the press box and Patrice Cormier in St John’s. So, really, why add another forward? 

Coming into the season, it was believed that Eric O’Dell was the team’s true 14th forward. Sure, Anthony Peluso was technically in the spot, but an injury above the fourth line would require a hockey player with a broader range of skills. As well, O’Dell had to play 50 NHL games this season or the team lost his RFA rights. Instead, O’Dell has languished on a struggling farm club, along with Klingberg, Lipon, Kosmachuk, and others who could potentially fit a top-9 spot. 

Conacher has been more Fred Speck than Pat Verbeek (seriously, read the linked article about him in the opening), but he has more NHL experience and more NHL success than his slightly younger counter-part in Eric O’Dell. He also had more AHL success, as only the fourth player in history to win the AHL’s Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the same year for the Calder winning Admirals in 2011/12. 

He’s undersized, but has a reputation as aggressive and as an agitator. We might think penalties are a problem, but he’s actually drawn between 2 and 4 times as many penalties as he’s taken (depending on the season), and dropped his own penalty rate to a third his usual total while playing for the Islanders. In fact, it may be his short leash that’s to blame for his poor showing with the Islanders. 

This is a player who kept up with Stamkos in his rookie season, set 12 college records, and won the AHL MVP award on the Calder winning club as a rookie professional. At just 25, we know that he can’t score at a high rate with 12 minutes a night playing with Matt Martin or Mika Zibinejad while playing out of position. 

The pertinent question is – can he do more with Matt Halischuk’s minutes than Halischuk? He already has, scoring 0.41 points per game over his career versus Halischuk’s 0.30. As well, he fits with Winnipeg’s physical, in-your-face style, and could fit on the second PP unit. 

There’s plenty of questions unanswered about this player. Something tells me we haven’t seen him for the last time.