TAMPA — Cory Conacher was all smiles Friday morning, back in Lightning blue for the first practice of training camp. He zipped around the ice with former AHL teammates Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn.
"The fire is in the belly," Conacher said. "This is my last chance, I think."
Conacher, 26, didn't know if he'd get another shot in the NHL, much less with Tampa Bay. He bounced around from three teams after the Lightning traded him in 2013 to the Senators for goaltender Ben Bishop, making the 5-foot-8 forward a footnote in arguably the best deal in franchise history.
But an unlikely reunion was sparked this summer in a text message Conacher sent to Lightning coach Jon Cooper. Conacher, coming off a championship season with Bern, a team in a Swiss league, faced a July 15 deadline to find a one-way NHL deal or remain overseas another year. Conacher reached out to Cooper, his coach in 2011-12 with the Lightning's then-AHL team in Norfolk, asking if there was an opportunity.
"I want to be a big part of this," Conacher wrote.
Cooper told Conacher he was intrigued, having watched the undersized, undrafted Canisius College product earn AHL MVP honors for Norfolk in 2011-12. Conacher was the leading scorer on the AHL title-winning team that season that included Johnson, Killorn and Ondrej Palat.
"I know how you play," Cooper told Conacher. "I know you can make a difference."
Time will tell if Conacher does. Though Conacher signed a one-year, one-way, $575,000 deal, there's no guarantee he makes the team out of camp. But with the Lightning needing scoring depth, or at least a replacement for Ryan Callahan (hip surgery) until he is ready to return in November, Conacher is ready to earn a spot.
"I'm going to try to turn some heads again," Conacher said. "Like I did the first time."
• • •
When Tampa Bay first called up Conacher in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, he was a smashing success.
"He was almost up for rookie of the year," Killorn said.
Conacher racked up 24 points in his first 35 NHL games, including a goal in his debut Jan. 12, 2013, scoring on now-Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby of the Capitals. A few days later, Conacher bought a dog, a morkie, and named it Holtby. "He's a little smaller than the actual Holtby," Conacher said, smiling.
But after getting dealt to Ottawa at the trade deadline (along with a fourth-round draft pick), Conacher couldn't maintain that consistency. He had four goals in his first 58 games in Ottawa and often was a healthy scratch before eventually being waived.
Conacher said he found it tough to adapt to a new system and coaching staff, not having the same relationship and trust he had in Tampa Bay. His confidence, his edge, gradually waned.
"When I made a mistake, sometimes (Cooper) would give me a break," Conacher said. "Where if I made a mistake in Ottawa, I didn't play the rest of the game, or didn't play as much, or got sent down to another line.
"It made me a little uneasy and more cautious, and that's not how I play. I like to play with an edge, that fire in my belly, and stir things up."
• • •
It didn't help matters that Bishop blossomed with the Lightning, turning into one of the best goalies in the world, a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist who led the team to the Stanley Cup final in 2015. Conacher watched Tampa Bay games, happy for Bishop and his former teammates. But he'd notice fans comment on Twitter about the lopsided trade.
"You'd think about it, for sure," Conacher said. "You see 'Bish' doing well, you want to try to match that. You don't want to look like you got the wrong end of the trade. That's another thing that may have got put in my head and affected my game. Now, coming back, there's no excuses. No regrets. I'm coming in with a clean slate."
And Conacher believes he's in a system that fits him, just like in Bern, where Conacher played for Guy Boucher, his coach as a rookie with the Lightning. Conacher not only scored 22 goals in 48 games in Bern, he and Boucher led Canada to a championship in the Spengler Cup, an international tournament in December. He believes he has become a better pro, a two-way player.
"He can help our team," Johnson said. "He's a guy that has a tremendous shot. He's a hard-working player, plays on an edge, with a little bit of grit. We'll see what he can do."