On Tuesday, a long-running rumor apparently finally came to resolution. Syracuse Crunch forward Cory Conacher is on his way back to Europe to play hockey in Switzerland. Lausanne Hockey Club of the NLA announced via Twitter that they had signed the 30-year-old winger to a three-year contract.
Conacher, who previously played with SC Bern in Switzerland, was originally signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011 as a free agent. He was undrafted after four productive years at Canisius College and then spent a season getting into a scattering of games with Rochester and Milwaukee in the AHL. The Lightning then signed him and he found his groove on their AHL affiliate, recording 80 points (39 goals, 41 assists) in 75 games as the Norfolk Admirals won the Calder Cup (coached by a young kid named Jon Cooper). He was named rookie of the year and MVP of the league while also making his first AHL all-star team.
With the NHL taking its sweet time getting the 2012-13 season started due to the lockout, Conacher kept up the scoring in the AHL (now with the Syracuse Crunch as Tampa had changed affiliations). Once the NHL figured itself out, Conacher was called up and stuck with Lightning earning some Calder Trophy talk by putting up 24 points (9 goals, 15 assists) for Tampa Bay in the shortened season.
Then came one of the more controversial trades (at least at the time) trades in Lightning history. Conacher (and a fourth round pick) was sent to Ottawa at the trade deadline in exchange for a young, tall netminder named Ben Bishop. With their crop of young forwards not having made it to the NHL yet, some fans were wondering why they would possibly trade a potential rookie of the year for another young goaltender after having brought in Anders Lindback to be the number one goalie just a few months prior.
Despite the initial trepidation the deal worked out alright for the Lightning, and after spending time with the Senators, Sabres, and Islanders Conacher made his way back to Tampa Bay, signing as a free agent in the summer of 2016.
Since then he has spent the majority of his time in Syracuse while occasionally getting called up to play in Tampa. He emerged as the leader of the Crunch, transitioning from a prospect to a mentor for the next generation of players in the Lightning organization. During his career he recorded 41 points in 87 games (18 goals, 23 assists) with the Lightning, including this wonderful OT winner against Dallas in 2018:
He wasn’t kept around in Syracuse just for his wisdom, Conacher produced while on the ice. In 224 game with the Crunch he has recorded 205 points (72 goals, 133 assists) which is good for fourth all-time in franchise history. Had the Syracuse season not been cut short, there’s a chance he could have chased down Mark Hatigan for third.
It’s a big loss for the Crunch (and also deprives the Lightning of a veteran forward they can call up as an injury replacement). Conacher was part of the leadership team among the players that helped bridge the gap between some of the younger players and the coaching staff. They’re also losing one of their top-six forwards without really having a replacement for his production ready to step into the system.
He was also a player who led by example. Conacher was a relentless forechecker and steadily annoyed other teams and their fanbases with his play, which occasionally teetered over the line of aggressiveness. He did struggle with letting his emotions get the better of him and if the refs were doling out an unsportsmanlike penalty for complaining about a call, chances are it was on Conacher. It was an issue that he acknowledged and had done a pretty good job of correcting in the 2019-20 season.
It didn’t take away from his production. On the power play he was usually posted up in his office, the right circle, waiting for the puck to unleash a wicked one-timer. If he wasn’t in the penalty box, he could be counted on to kill penalties as well where his aggressive play led to four short-handed goals over the past two seasons.
For Conacher the deal makes sense. He is an unrestricted free agent after this season and it’s going to be a weird market for veteran AHL forwards. While financials weren’t released, it’s easy to assume it is somewhere in the range of the $700,000 he was making with the Lightning over the last couple of seasons. For him, the security comes in the fact that it is a three-year deal, something he would have struggled to get from Tampa Bay or any other team in the NHL. That’s important to a player with a young family.
Having already played in Europe, he seemed to really enjoy his season with SC Bern, the transition should be easy. If he had signed with a NHL team, there is no guarantee he’d make the team, nor would he have any idea of when he would be playing again if he was assigned to the AHL.
Best of luck to Cory Conacher as his career takes another step. Thank you for all of the memories.