Cory Conacher is putting on a show in Syracuse

Cory Conacher is comfortably the best scorer so far in the AHL.

Cory Conacher is lighting up the AHL. He joined the Crunch on October 18th after starting the season on the Lightning roster. In just thirteen games in Syracuse, he has taken over as the leading scorer in the AHL.

The Lightning placed Conacher on waivers on October 17th with the intention of sending him back to the Crunch. Just a few hours later, the team announced that they’d agreed to a one-year contract extension with the winger. The deal is one-way meaning that he will earn the same amount of money whether he is in the NHL or the AHL. The amount of the contract is $700,000. That represents a slight raise over the $650,000 he’ll make this year.

The timing on the deal was interesting. For Conacher, getting sent to the AHL was probably disappointing. As a competitor, he wants to play at the highest level and that’s the NHL. So to get a contract offer that would guarantee him one of the highest paid seasons of his career at the same time as the demotion must have been a conflict of emotions.

He’s also been around the league  long enough to understand the choice he was facing. If he turned down the offer, he would increase his chances of being claimed on waivers and get to keep playing in the NHL. If he signed the contract, he would make it almost certain that he would clear waivers and head to the AHL. That’s quite a choice to make.

He chose to sign the contract. In real terms, he may have ended his NHL career with that decision. The Lightning are so stacked at forward that it’s hard to envision him gaining significant playing time in Tampa. As of now, he’s 15th on the depth chart at forward meaning there would have to be multiple injuries for him to even be considered for recall to the NHL.

And the path doesn’t get any more clear next year. The Lightning have young forwards who could make the jump to the NHL next season. Conacher will be thirty years old at the end of next season when his contract expires. It’s hard to imagine that an NHL team will be looking for a thirty year old forward without a significant NHL track record.

But maybe that’s ok. In 47 games over the last two seasons in the NHL, he’s compiled 0.1 WAR according to Evolving Hockey. That’s pretty much the definition of replacement level. Corsica is a little more favorable putting him at 0.6 WAR. He’s been a positive player in terms of xG impact. He’s scored well in limited minutes. Making an argument that he belongs in the NHL isn’t difficult. But arguing that he deserves to play every night is.

His production puts him in the squishy place where his opportunity in the NHL would be up to the whims of the coach. He hasn’t show enough to be a consistent top-nine option. And with his skill set, most NHL coaches would be reluctant to play him on the fourth line. He’s a scorer first and that isn’t the type of player most coaches want playing on the bottom line.

No one knows this better than Conacher himself. He’s been through this with multiple teams. In Ottawa. In Buffalo. In Long Island. All places where he had a claim to being one of the twelve best forwards on the team but all places where he couldn’t find a consistent spot in the lineup.

I could waste an entire article arguing that coaches should play the best players regardless of “role” but that’s not the point here. The reality is that if Conacher had turned down the extension in the hopes that another team would claim him on waivers, he would have likely ended up in limbo in a new situation. Not quite good enough to be in the top nine and not the right fit to play every night on the bottom line.

Instead, he chose to sign the contract knowing that would probably mean lots of time in the AHL over the next two seasons. The travel accommodations will be worse. The crowds will be smaller. The rinks lacking in luxury.

But he will be great. Instead of wondering how many shifts he’ll get each night, he’ll be on the top line. He’ll be able to play his game without worrying about trying to fit into a pre-conceived role. He’ll be looked to as a leader. He’ll be a guy who showed he was good enough for the show and all the young players in the organization will look to him for what to expect when they get there.

It only took him thirteen games in the AHL this season to take over the scoring lead. He’s scoring almost two points per game. The next best player is under one and half. In terms of scoring, he’s been the best player in the league by more than a third. He’s been the best player on the team during this six-game winning streak in which the offense, and the power play in particular, has been dominant.

If he plays most of the next two seasons in Syracuse, he could start to put himself in the conversation with other Crunch legends. He already has 100 points as a Crunch player. Brad Moran holds the all-time record in Syracuse with 241. Conacher could top 200 by the end of next season meaning that if he extends for one more year, he could be in contention to break Moran’s record. That depends heavily on what happens in Tampa and how many games he plays in Syracuse but that’s the kind of thing that’s on the table for him.

Cory Conacher belongs in the NHL. But the reality is that not all NHL jobs are the same. Playing every night is great. Playing sporadically and being bounced back and forth between the NHL and AHL is not. For a twenty eight year old with a young family including his first child born over the summer, maybe the security is better. He’s made the best financial decision for his family and ensured that if he does have to go away to play in the NHL, it will only be a few hours away by flight and in the same time zone.

Cory Conacher is a professional hockey player. That’s a great accomplishment. He wants to be back in the NHL. That’s understandable. The path he’s chosen, rightfully I would argue, makes getting back to the top level a little bit harder. But another opportunity is in front of him if he wants it. If he continues to play this way, he’ll be one of the best players in the AHL. And if he sticks around in Syracuse, he could secure a special place in their history.