This originally ran as part of Dan Rosen's Over the Boards notebook on Feb. 8. Statistics have been updated.
The two drawbacks that could have easily prevented Tampa Bay Lightning rookie Cory Conacher from making it to the NHL are instead the two biggest reasons he is thriving and playing top-six minutes for a team with playoff aspirations.
Conacher's diminutive size (5-foot-9, 179 pounds) and potentially debilitating disease (type 1 diabetes, diagnosed when he was eight years old) never got in his way before he got to the League and certainly don't figure to be detrimental now that he's arrived with a fearlessness built on a foundation of always having to prove people wrong.
Through 15 games, Conacher had 14 points on five goals and nine assists. He's scored all of his goals from right around the blue paint, a testament to his fearlessness.
"It's a little easier to fight off a check than it is to fight off diabetes, so that's how that's how I take it," Conacher told NHL.com. "When I'm in the corner I want to come out with the puck, do the little things that will help my team. A lot of people in my past said I was too small to make it, and that's just another motivator that kept me driving the net, kept me doing the little things to fight off those big defensemen and big forwards."
Conacher, who calls it a dream to be playing on the same team and occasionally the same line with his childhood idol Martin St. Louis, didn't drop into Tampa Bay’s lap by happenstance. He got there through a connection a former coach at Canisius College had with Lightning assistant general manager Pat Verbeek.
It earned Conacher, who owns 12 records at Canisius, an invitation to training camp prior to last season. He wound up being one of the last players cut by coach Guy Boucher, who said he had to make the move because the Lightning knew they had something special and didn't want to ruin Conacher by bringing him along too fast.
Conacher was sent down to the American Hockey League, where he thrived with the Norfolk Admirals, putting up 80 points in 75 games to be named the AHL regular-season MVP and Rookie of the Year. He had 15 points in 18 playoff games to help the Admirals win the Calder Cup.
"We didn't want him to be an experiment in the NHL," Boucher said. "I find that, and [Lightning general manager] Steve Yzerman is the same, very often experiments in the NHL don't turn out very good. They have an impact on the player's morale and confidence and it takes more time after to rebuild them back up.
"We felt with Cory going to the American League, we would see him in a long season, in a tough calendar, plus he needed to learn how to play defensively. He wasn't very good. The NHL is not about developing guys to being better defensive players. You have to be good right now or else somebody is going to take your spot. We didn't want that to happen to him, and I think it was the best gamble we've made."
Conacher has no complaints. He said the year in the AHL was not only a blast, but it gave him a chance to learn how to be a pro, something he couldn't do when he was in college and staying up late studying for exams, eating poorly and generally not making hockey the focal point of his life.
He also played in the AHL during the lockout and had 28 points in 36 games with the Syracuse Crunch.
"Once you're at the professional level this is your job, so you have to eat, sleep and breathe hockey," the 23-year-old said. "I've always wanted to say that and actually do it, and now it's just so surreal. It was an awesome experience and a great opportunity I got to play in Norfolk last year, and now I'm just so thankful for the opportunity I've been given here."
Conacher is too humble to say he earned the opportunity with the Lightning; that nothing was actually given to him. But that is the real truth.
He didn't need another full training camp to prove to Boucher and Yzerman that he belonged; he proved that last year, just like how he's proving he should stay in Tampa Bay for good.
"He's got the speed, the drive -- he's relentless," Boucher said. "Those guys, they manufacture things. It's the guys that have skill that play on the outside usually their adaptation period in the NHL is longer.
"He's at the right place, doing the right things, and he keeps going at it. He's a relentless guy that gets knocked down and nobody knows he's knocked down because a fraction of a second after he's right back up going at it. He just keeps coming, keeps coming, keeps coming. That's why he's had success wherever he's been."
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