BUFFALO – Two and a half years ago, former Sabres center Cory Conacher wanted a fresh start. So just months removed from regular NHL duty, the Canisius College product bolted overseas to Switzerland.
“The reason I went over was just to find a second wind,” Conacher said Tuesday prior to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 5-3 loss to the Sabres inside KeyBank Center.
Some risk, of course, accompanied leaving North America at 25 years old. Conacher, an AHL star with some decent big league success, could’ve fallen off the NHL radar.
Still, Conacher wanted to play for Guy Boucher, his coach with the Lightning as a rookie in 2012-13.
“I knew with him he’d give me a chance to play and play a lot of minutes and just to find my game again,” Conacher said. “Once I realized the year I had over there and how I felt my game was at the top and at its best, I didn’t want to have any regrets.”
So after compiling 22 goals and 52 points in 48 games and winning the Swiss National League championship in 2015-16, Conacher reached a crossroads. While a year remained on his Swiss contract, the deal allowed him to look for a North American gig until mid-July.
Just a day before the deadline, Conacher texted Lightning coach Jon Cooper, his coach in the minors and briefly in Tampa Bay five years ago. By that night, Conacher had a deal to return to the Lightning organization.
“I wanted to give it another chance, and to be in an organization like this, to be with such a successful team, it’s special,” said Conacher, who was scratched Tuesday.
Conacher spent most of last season with the Syracuse Crunch, the Lightning’s AHL affiliate, playing just 11 NHL games. This season, however, he has been in Tampa Bay since early December, compiling six goals and nine points in 24 games.
The powerhouse Lightning, the NHL’s best team with 79 points, recently told Conacher to settle in Tampa Bay, meaning he should stay up the rest of the season.
“It’s a reassurance that I made the right decision to come back here, especially to re-sign with Tampa,” Conacher said. “This is a team that could possibly go far in the playoffs, if not win the Stanley Cup. I want to be a part of that as much as I can, whether I’m in the lineup every night, in and out.”
These days, the 5-foot-8, 180-pound Conacher, who spent the final two months of 2013-14 with the Sabres, often plays short minutes on the fourth line.
“You’ve got to do what it takes to help this team and if it’s playing 10 minutes, you’ve got to make sure those 10 minutes are your best 10 minutes,” Conacher said. “That’s what I’ve come to understand. As a young guy when I first started, I’d be getting frustrated, I’d be negative on the bench, I’d show all those emotions and it would rub the wrong way for a lot of guys. You don’t want that to happen here.”
Cooper said Conacher “brings energy.”
“He’s small in stature, but he’s got the big heart,” Cooper said. “He’s never really out of a play because he’s always working and then when he gets that chance to shoot a puck, there’s always a chance that baby’s going in because he’s got that natural scorer’s ability.”
The Sabres made one lineup change up front, inserting winger Nick Baptiste for Jordan Nolan.
Baptiste, who scored a first-period goal, skated on the fourth-line beside center Jacob Josefson and Zemgus Girgensons.
Tuesday was the Sabres’ second game without top center Jack Eichel, who’s out indefinitely with a high right ankle sprain.
The Sabres also scratched defenseman Josh Gorges. The veteran has sat out three straight games and nine of the last 11.