With the NHL lockout putting the Bolts’ present on hold, it’s only natural that more eyes will wander to the Bolts’ future. While it can be confusing trying to keep track of any organization’s prospects, given that they’re spread through a number of leagues both here and overseas, there’s always one place you can find the bulk of the most promising ones – the AHL. And if you take a look at Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch (newly moved from Norfolk), one name, and its accompanying stats line, will pop out at you – Cory Conacher.
Last season with Tampa Bay’s former AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, Conacher had an incredible year. Consider these facts: Conacher led the Admirals in scoring, was named the AHL’s MVP, and helped the Admirals go on a jaw-dropping twenty-eight game winning streak (a professional hockey record) and win the Calder Cup. Now consider this: It was his first season as a professional. Conacher, 22, was also named the AHL’s rookie of the year.
Of course, AHL success doesn’t automatically translate into success at the NHL level. We all know stories of one can’t-miss prospect or another that could never quite find their AHL magic in the show. At the same time, you wouldn’t expect a good NHL player to not have success with his organization’s affiliate, and such immediate dominance as Conacher’s can’t be a bad omen.
Okay great, you say, let’s get this guy into the Lightning lineup! Well, there are, however, problems. The first is it might be hard for the Lightning to make space for another scoring forward, particularly at left wing. Conacher can make this a non-issue if he can prove he has some versatility, both positionally and in terms of role. The more glaring problem is his size – Conacher stands only 5’8.
However, if there was ever a city that shouldn’t overlook players due to their stature, it’s Tampa Bay. Forgetting for a moment the obvious Martin St. Louis comparisons, let’s not forget that Tampa’s own general manager, Steve Yzerman, was once considered an undersized player himself, particularly in the latter half of his career when the league’s rule of thumb concerning forwards seemed to be: the bigger, the better. The late nineties were a grueling era in the NHL, and Yzerman, despite being sub-six feet, matched up night after night against bigger, stronger opponents. What he lacked in size, he made up for in will.
And then there are the obvious Martin St. Louis comparisons. St. Louis is also listed at 5’8. Partly thanks to that, he went undrafted, as did Conacher. They each spent their pre-pro years putting together impressive collegiate hockey careers, where they both finally began getting interest from pro teams.
If anything, St. Louis’ road to the NHL was even tougher than Conacher’s looks to be. St. Louis came up during that aforementioned grueling era of the NHL, when diminutive players rarely got a shot, and even more rarely found success. And St. Louis struggled through the early part of his career. He failed to make an impact at the NHL level despite being an AHL standout. Of course, we all know his NHL failings were short-lived, and after becoming a member of the Lightning, St. Louis has gone on to have a fairy tale NHL career.
St. Louis’ story is the ultimate story of an underdog’s triumph, and it all serves as a lesson to NHL teams. He proved that a small man can still have success in this big man’s game, and in doing so, helped pave the way for players like Conacher get a fair shake. At the same time, it’s sobering to consider St. Louis’ story wouldn’t be nearly so fascinating if it was common for 5’8 players to find NHL success – the odds were stacked against him for a reason.
Whether or not Conacher pans out at the NHL level remains to be seen, but he’s doing all the right things to be given the opportunity. Sometimes, where underdogs are concerned, it’s less about being given an opportunity than it is making it impossible to deny you one. The Lightning front office has said what they’re looking for out of Conacher this year is consistency. Conacher has thus far obliged, opening the AHL season with 7 goals and 13 points in 11 games, and already taking home player of the week honors in the season’s opening week.