At the trade deadline last season, the Ottawa Senators traded goaltender Ben Bishop to the Tampa Bay Lighting for forward Cory Conacher and a 4th round draft pick. After the trade was announced, there was a sense of disappointment among some Sabres fans. Conacher was having a productive rookie campaign. With signs pointing towards an imminent rebuild, many wondered if former General Manager Darcy Regier had any discussions on the young forward with Buffalo ties before he was dealt to the Senators.
Fast forward a season, Regier is gone and new General Manager Tim Murray has his club at the beginning of a rebuild. Regier had moved some pieces at the end of last season including forward Jason Pominville. The Sabres entered the season with pending free agent forward Thomas Vanek and goaltender Ryan Miller still on the roster. Many questioned the direction of the franchise and if Regier was the man for the job. After Regier was fired and GM Tim Murray took over the helm, it became clear that the Sabres were on a path towards rebuilding. The club recently parted ways with soon-to-be unrestricted forwards Matt Moulson, Steve Ott and goaltender Ryan Miller.
[See Also: Was the Trade Deadline A Success for the Buffalo Sabres?]
The Sabres claimed forward Cory Conacher off of waivers from the Ottawa Senators on trade deadline day. Conacher has previous ties to the Buffalo area having played hockey for Canisius College. Conacher’s acquisition represents Murray’s new philosophy for the team. The Buffalo Sabres are no longer a team that holds on to its players like it did under the Regier regime.
Murray’s new philosophy is to encourage competition and to consider any possibilities that will improve his club. Conacher has a strong work ethic and offensive skill set that will have utility in Buffalo on a squad that is at the bottom of the NHL in scoring. Conacher’s arrival will raise the level of competition for ice time and it will add some offensive talent into the mix as the organization builds towards the future. The Sabres gave up nothing for Conacher so it is a low risk move that has the potential to pay big dividends should Conacher mesh well in Buffalo.
Tim Murray: "I want competition. I want one of our drafts picks to say today that they’re pissed off that we went and got Cory Conacher."
— John Vogl (@BuffaloVogl) March 5, 2014
Conacher’s Early Hockey Career
Conacher’s offensive skill set led to a successful season for his hometown club in the OPJHL. As a member of the Burlington Cougars, Conacher posted twenty-two goals and forty assists in just forty-eight games. He also notched a point per game for the Cougars in the playoffs where he netted three goals and three assists in six games. He was selected as the Rookie of the Year by Burlington and he was named to the OPJHL West Rookie All-Star Team.
After his time in the OPJHL, Conacher would begin a very successful career playing in Buffalo for the Canisius Golden Griffins of the Atlantic League. Conacher would break all kinds of school records during his four seasons at Canisius including the all-time scoring leader with one hundred and forty-seven points, and the all-time goals leader with sixty-two.
Conacher also earned top honors with Canisius. He was named the Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year and to the All-Atlantic Hockey First Team during his junior year. He also received second team All-Atlantic honors and the Lowe’s Senior Class Award All-America First Team honors during his senior year. A highlight of his collegiate career were his goals on the power play. Conacher notched twenty-one career power play goals which accounted for 34% of his total goals.
A Promising Start to his Professional Career
Conacher’s offensive talents served him well in the time he spent in the AHL. The forward tallied one hundred fourteen points in one hundred eighteen career games in the AHL. He had an impressive rookie season with the Norfolk Admirals during the 2011-2012 season where he averaged more than a point per game. He finished with eighty points during the regular season which included thirty-nine goals; fourteen of these goals came on the power play.
His best hockey during his rookie season in the AHL came during the playoffs. Conacher became a key component in the Admirals’ Calder Cup run where he scored fifteen points in eighteen games. In the game where the Admirals won the Calder Cup, Conacher had four assists as Norfolk defeated the Toronto Marlies by a 6-1 score.
Conacher earned top honors in the AHL in his rookie year. He was selected as the AHL’s MVP and he was named Rookie of the Year. Prior to this award, there had only been three other rookies in the history of the AHL who earned MVP honors in their inaugural season.
His rookie year in the NHL was during the lockout-shortened season after he signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa Bay had an arsenal of offensive fire-power that included the likes of forwards Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos. Conacher meshed well with the Lightning and was in consideration for rookie of the year honors.
Conacher was dealt in a deal that brought goaltender Ben Bishop to Tampa which helped fill a need for the club. His time in Ottawa was a bit less productive than in Tampa. He averaged 0.69 points per game as a member of the Lightning but his production fell off with the Senators where he averaged just 0.33 points per game. He was placed on waivers earlier this month and ultimately claimed by the Buffalo Sabres.
What Conacher Brings to Buffalo
The Sabres have been abysmal, perhaps this is putting it mildly, on offense this season. After seventy games played, Buffalo is the only team in the NHL that averages less than two goals per game. The club has a league-worst one hundred and thirty goals trailing the next closest teams, the Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings, by thirty-three goals.
Conacher provides an upgrade to a dreadful Sabres offense and for no cost. He has found some early chemistry with forwards Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford and has started to become a regular contributor on offense. The young forward recently scored his first goal as a member of the Buffalo Sabres in the club’s last game against the Edmonton Oilers. He added another goal and an assist for his first multi-point game with Buffalo. As he becomes more acclimated, the Sabres’ management hopes he will regain his scoring touch which he seemed to have lost in Ottawa. He currently has two goals and three assists with Buffalo.
Another aspect to Conacher’s game is his work ethic. Sabres head coach Ted Nolan has made the point that a strong work ethic and effort are traits that he values in his players. Conacher’s hockey career has been all about hard work. He was an undrafted player who had to prove himself to break into the AHL and eventually to the NHL. He has been very successful at the collegiate level and in the AHL which all came to fruition because of the effort he puts into his game.
The Sabres management has focused on bringing players in that can help remold the team’s culture into a hard working club. In Nolan’s past stint with the Sabres, Buffalo was considered by many to be the hardest working team in the NHL. Conacher fits this mold to a tee and he hopes to become an important part of the rebuilding efforts in Buffalo.
The Sabres gave up nothing to put the young forward in a blue and gold uniform. At the very least, bringing him back to Buffalo is a low risk move that could yield a high reward. Whatever the outcome, Conacher is a character guy with proven offensive talents so this waiver claim holds true to Murray’s rebuilding plan. Time will tell if Conacher becomes an impact player or a bust in Buffalo but he has promise to become a fan favorite if he can become a regular contributor on offense.