Cory Conacher turned out to be the surprise of Lightning training camp this season. But the undrafted free agent out of Buffalo's Canisius College played the season without a contract from Tampa Bay.
That changed on Thursday when Conacher signed a two-year entry level contract that will slide to next season. The 22-year-old is expected to finish the remainder of this season playing for the Lightning's affiliate in the American Hockey League, the Norfolk Admirals.
Conacher, a free agent invitee to training camp who has played the season under an AHL contract, currently sits second in the AHL with 30 goals and is third with 64 points heading into Friday's game at Adirondack where Norfolk will look to extend its franchise record winning streak to 11 games.
Despite playing well and this season while having to wait for his first NHL contract, Conacher said he never felt any extra sense of worry that he would not land his first NHL deal.
"I was anxious, for sure, but I've always had a lot of trust in the organization and I trust them one-hundred percent,'' Conacher said. "Especially since we are winning down here in Norfolk it wasn't really on my mind, so I didn't worry about is much as I would have if things were not going as well as they have been down here.''
During training camp Conacher impressed the Lightning coaching staff with his work ethic, hockey sense and tenacious attitude. After a strong first impression, the 5-foot-8, 170-pound winger, was rewarded with his showing by playing preseason games alongside Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos. Conacher continued to show improvement in his positioning and willingness to get to the net in the offensive zone during his preseason opportunities.
While making that solid impression during training camp was important for Conacher, continuing to show improvements this season with the Admirals was the next step in the process. That was a big part of ensuring he earned his first NHL deal.
"The first couple of weeks or so, the first one or two games in Norfolk, it was probably my worst hockey of the season because I had been on such a high in Tampa, then I come down to Norfolk, I tried to settle in instead of playing the same way I played in camp,'' Conacher said. "But (Lightning assistant general manager and Norfolk general manager Julien) BriseBois sat me down and said there was a reason I was here and it's all about development and wanted to make sure my head was in the right position.
"I took those comments serious and since then I've just tried to get better and better every day, listen to what the coaches have to say and what the veterans have to say, so that when you do get that chance to get called up, or if I stay in Norfolk the rest of the year or even next year, to make sure I keep learning and get better is the most important thing. You'll get that chance if you continue to do that, and I have full faith and trust in the organization to give everyone an equal shot if they deserve it.''
Achieving a first NHL contract is a big accomplishment for an undrafted player just out of college, but Conacher knows it's just a step in the process.
"I'm only halfway there,'' he said. "Obviously it's a dream to sign that contract, but at the same time, it's not just signing the contract, it's actually playing in the NHL and being able to say you played in the NHL. So I have to earn the contract and earn the position in Tampa and play in that first game with Tampa.
"But that's not what I'm focused on, we have games here this weekend with Norfolk, so this is not something I'm going to let get to my head. I'm just going to keep playing the way I'm playing. And until I get that opportunity to play in Tampa I'll keep going hard here in Norfolk and hopefully down the stretch we'll be lucky enough to win a championship.