Rookies with bigger names and more impressive hockey résumés than Cory Conacher entered this abbreviated NHL season.
Those at the top of Calder Trophy lists heading into the season were top draft picks such as Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz of Edmonton, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko of St. Louis and Jonathan Huberdeau of Florida.
Judging from the first week, however, Conacher deserves to be in the conversation for most impressive first-year player. After three games, the undrafted 23-year-old is tied atop the rookie scoring race with five points on two goals and three assists — the only player in Lightning franchise history to score points in his first three games.
The quick start does not surprise Lightning coach Guy Boucher, who saw in training camp a year ago that Conacher had an NHL-caliber game and had no qualms about putting the rookie into a scoring-line role.
"I've been saying since the beginning, I strongly believe that he was not a project — he's just ready,'' Boucher said. "And he's showing it right now that he's ready.''
Conacher has played primarily with captain Vinny Lecavalier and Teddy Purcell, but he's also taken shifts with Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis. The rookie has fit right in, even if he still doesn't believe he's lining up with such high-caliber players.
"It's just really been a dream start,'' Conacher said. "I have to give a lot of credit to my teammates and the coaching and management side of it for giving me the chance to be on this team. It's really incredible.''
Conacher didn't arrive in the NHL with the sort of credentials that had scouts knocking down his door. He played college hockey at unheralded Canisius College, a Jesuit school in Buffalo, N.Y. He set or matched 12 career, single-season or single-game school records, including recording 53 points and 33 assists in 35 games his junior season.
Yet, the 5-foot-8, 179-pound winger didn't receive much attention from NHL clubs.
After completing his four years at Canisius, he signed tryout contracts with three minor league teams – Rochester and Milwaukee in the American Hockey League and Cincinnati in the East Coast Hockey League – to close out the 2010-11 season. But despite scoring nine goals and 13 points in 10 combined games among the three teams, no NHL franchise inked him to a deal.
But a connection between Tampa Bay assistant general manager Pat Verbeek and Canisius College volunteer assistant coach David Smith – Smith was the strength and conditioning coach with the Rangers when Verbeek played for New York – led to a deal with the Lightning's minor league team.
When Conacher caught the eye of former Tampa Bay pro scout Mike Butters during the 2010-11 playoffs, Verbeek reached out to Conacher, who had interest from a few other teams at the time.
Verbeek was able to recruit the free agent to the Lightning.
"It's been a great fit for both Cory and us,'' Verbeek said. "It turned out even better. Cory has done tremendous. He was a talent, and it was just one of those deals that you just get lucky.''
Conacher nearly made the team out of training camp last season, but there was hesitation in having him jump from college to the NHL. By the end of his first pro season, he was named AHL Rookie of the Year as well as MVP. Making the jump to the NHL this season has been a smooth transition to this point.
"It's all about the players you play with, and there are guys on this team that I've had some good chemistry with pretty quick,'' Conacher said. "It's definitely a little faster out there (than in the AHL). …I'll get used to the speed a little more as time goes on, but right now all I'm trying to do is just continue to move my feet, drive the net and use my speed to my advantage.''
Where Conacher excels is not just through the speed of his skates, but in how quickly he thinks.
"Last year I saw him work hard, and that was impressive, but to me it's how fast he can decide things,'' Boucher said. "His speed of execution is unbelievable. That's where he thinks and reacts so fast.
"You have to think so fast in the NHL, because the play happens so fast and there's no space out there – and he's got that.''