Conacher fights through obstacles to stick with Bolts
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 second-line minutes for the top team in the Southeast Division.
Conacher's diminutive size (5-foot-9, 179 pounds) and potentially debilitating disease (type 1 diabetes, diagnosed when he was 8 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 12 games, Conacher had 12 points on five goals and seven assists (though he'd gone pointless in Tampa Bay's recent three-game losing streak). 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.
"In the past six or seven years Detroit was probably a much superior team to what we had here in St. Louis. Since we finished our rebuild and we see ourselves as contenders and now we can give those guys a run for their money, there is definitely something building there as far as a rivalry. There is no love lost. Every time there is a collision it seems to be harder than other nights." -- St. Louis Blues captain David Backes to NHL.com when asked about the Red Wings-Blues rivalry that will be on display again Wednesday night on the NBC Sports Network
"They [Rangers rookies J.T. Miller and Chris Kreider] are both good offensive players and the challenge is to teach them to play the game away from the puck because they're not going to be good enough offensively at this level to hang their hat on one element. Usually the higher picks are good offensive people and it's about developing the other part of their game so they become real solid two-way players. That's their best ticket to getting to and staying in the NHL. It's also our ticket to the big prize." -- New York Rangers assistant coach/general manager Jim Schoenfeld to NHL.com about rookies J.T. Miller and Chris Kreider
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."
Eddie Olczyk has been a game analyst for the Chicago Blackhawks television broadcasts since the 2006–07 season. (Photo: Getty Images)
Olczyk, who calls Chicago Blackhawks games with Pat Foley on CSN and national games with Mike Emrick on NBC and NBC Sports Network, has already been to Los Angeles, Washington, New York, Vancouver, Columbus, Dallas, Minnesota, San Jose and Phoenix this season.
He will be in Detroit on Sunday for the NHL on NBC Game of the Week between the Detroit Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings. That's just one of the 66 games Olczyk is scheduled to call over the 99-day regular season.
"I think it works out to be almost four-and-a-half games a week between Chicago, NBC and NBC Sports Network," Olczyk told NHL.com Thursday, when he was in Arizona to call the Chicago Blackhawks’ game with the Phoenix Coyotes. "So it's going to be a sprint, and you just try to do your homework on your off days and prepare for game day in that particular city.
Olczyk said he does have a couple of stretches built into his schedule for time off, which he said is important because he prides himself on being at his best in the broadcast booth for every game he calls.
"Look, it beats the real world, and I couldn't be more happy that we're back playing so I can get the chance to get around to all the different buildings," Olczyk said. "It's challenging, but I couldn't be more privileged and honored to do it on a night-in and night-out basis nationally and obviously in Chicago."
"A star is somebody who brings it every day, and I can tell you right now his work habits are every day, his energy is every day," Babcock told NHL.com of Brunner, who has five goals and two assists in his first NHL season. "He's got great passion for the game. He's a self-starter.
"All the good players are every-dayers," Babcock continued. "The other guys are guys you have to hook booster cables up to their butts to get them to go. We don't want those guys. We want every-dayers. We want guys to compete every day, and he's one of those guys."
Brunner, who signed with Detroit over the summer, spent the last four-and-a-half seasons as a star in Switzerland for EV Zug. He had 57 points in 33 games during the lockout after scoring 60 points in 45 games last season.
"The puck just seems to go in the net for him, and he can really skate. He's not one bit shy," Babcock said. "Now, can he get better? He's going to get way better as he learns where to stand and where to stop in the North American game. But he's a heck of a player for us and he'll just get better in traffic as time goes on."
Bernier trying to put penalty behind him
New Jersey Devils forward Steve Bernier is still trying to forgive himself for the hit he laid on Los Angeles defenseman Rob Scuderi in the first period of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final; it drew Bernier a boarding major and game misconduct and led to three consecutive power-play goals for the Kings, who were lifting the Stanley Cup by the end of the night.
"Mentally, you know what, I still think about it, so I think it's not all over yet," Bernier told NHL.com. "But as soon as I signed with the Devils just before July 1, it gave me confidence to try to forget about it, to start training and try to become a better player. If you do that, you're going to have another opportunity to maybe play in the playoffs again."
Bernier has at least finally stopped running the play over in his mind. That was hard to do during the summer and the lockout.
"A million things come into your head when you think about it, but at the same time we're human, you can't do anything about it," he said. "I wish I could do something about it, but you can't, so now you have to focus on what you can do on the ice."
Laich's value proved in his absence
We already knew how much the Washington Capitals valued forward Brooks Laich. His six-year, $27 million contract, signed prior to the 2011-12 season, is proof enough of that.
However, now that the Capitals are struggling this season with two wins and five points through 11 games, there's a feeling among some analysts that Laich's value to the team has never been higher -- and he hasn't even played yet due to a groin injury that will continue to keep him out, according to general manager George McPhee, who told reporters Friday there is still no timetable for Laich's return.
"He could be a player that can turn [the season] back at least to a positive because he's so versatile, can play on any of the top lines, center or wing," NBC Sports Network analyst Keith Jones told NHL.com. "He could be the one guy that turns it around."
Nobody is saying the Capitals are 2-8-1 only because Laich hasn't played, but remember what they're missing:
Oh, you know, only a player who has averaged 50 points over the past four seasons; a guy who, as Jones notes, can play all three forward positions; a guy who plays in all three phases of the game (even strength, power play, penalty kill); a guy who led all forwards in the NHL last season with 92 blocked shots.
"The thing with Brooks Laich and players like him, they're stabilizing players. They can go and make a positive impact on the game in a lot of ways, not only in the context of the game but on other players," NHL Network and TSN analyst Craig Button told NHL.com. "He does the heavy lifting, and every good team has those types of players.
"When the game is getting kind of fuzzy or you might feel like you're losing your grip on it, Brooks is the type of guy you want to get out there. That's what they miss not having Brooks Laich, in my view. It's when the game is 2-1 against Pittsburgh and you feel it slipping, you think, 'Who is the guy that can go stabilize this for me?' He is that type of player."
Odds and ends
Sunday, the Kings will make their second appearance of the season on NBC when they take on the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. That's already two more appearances for the Kings on NBC's national game of the week than they had since NBC became the League’s national broadcast partner seven years ago. The Kings did appear on NBC in some regional games.
So, yes, it pays to win the Stanley Cup.
The Kings are scheduled to be on NBC on Feb. 17 when they're in Chicago to play the Blackhawks. Los Angeles opened the season at home on NBC against Chicago.
Chicago's streak of 11 straight games to start the season without a regulation loss (9-0-2) is five behind the all-time record of 16, set by the Anaheim Ducks in 2006-07, when they went 12-0-4 before losing to the Calgary Flames on Nov. 10, 2006. Chicago's streak is the third longest since the shootout came into play in 2005-06. The Buffalo Sabres went 12 straight games (11-0-1) without a regulation loss in 2006-07.