Deal should help both clubs


Lightning, Senators swap talented, unproven players

Wayne Scanlan is a sports columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.

Wayne Scanlan is a sports columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.

Photograph by: Chris Mikula, Ottawa Citizen

Sure, the Ottawa Senators lost 11 inches in height on the deal.

Still, the trade of 6-foot-7 goaltender Ben Bishop for 5-foot-8 forward Cory Conacher, plus a fourth-round draft pick from the Tampa Bay Lightning, is a good return. Bishop, remember, was scooped by the Senators last year for a second-round draft pick.

Instead of a future selection, Ottawa gets immediate scoring punch.

Conacher, 23, is a distant relative of the famed sporting Conachers, including legendary Lionel ‘Great Train’ Conacher, voted Canada’s top athlete of the first half of the 20th century.

Born in Burlington, Ont., Cory Conacher is remarkable in a number of ways, and not just because he’s a smaller train. Undrafted and considered too small in a big man’s game, he played four years at unheralded Canisius College, and had several tryouts before catching on in the AHL with Norfolk and Syracuse. He became an AHL MVP and was part of a Calder Cup team.

Like Bobby Clarke of the Philadelphia Flyers in the Broad Street Bullies heyday, Conacher suffers from type 1 diabetes. He removes his insulin pump, attached to a port in his abdomen, in order to play. For all his challenges, Conacher is a rookie of the year candidate off his early play with the Lightning, 12 points in his first seven games, before cooling off lately.

While he only has two goals in his past 17 games — or two in his last six, including one against Ottawa, depending on how you want to measure it — he was among Tampa Bay’s top four scorers with nine goals and 24 points in 35 games. That puts him second among NHL rookies and yes, Conacher instantly becomes the Senators’ leading point producer as soon as he name is added to the list.

In Tampa Bay, Conacher was viewed as a Marty St. Louis clone, a small, quick player who hustles, battles above his weight class. Tiny dancer. He’s bound to be a crowd favourite at Scotiabank Place. Because the Lightning have another little big man, Tyler Johnson, waiting in the wings, they could afford to let Conacher go. Teams only need so many sub-six-foot forwards.

This looks like one of those deals that can help both clubs.

With Steven Stamkos, St. Louis et al., Tampa Bay can score. Stopping pucks is another matter. Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman had to do something to shore up his goaltending situation, considering how Anders Lindback and Mathieu Garon have struggled. Bishop gets a chance to move in there and challenge for the No. 1 position right away.

He’s not a sure thing, but neither is it unusual for a 26-year-old goalie to be seeking to establish himself. His size and decent athletic ability for a big man make Bishop promising. Now he needs to make this successful Ottawa run a springboard to a long term place in the NHL. Bishop’s .922 save percentage this season, 8-5-1 record and 2.45 goals-against average are the best numbers he has had in parts of four NHL seasons.

Will he suffer by moving away from Ottawa’s strong team game? Playing behind Tampa’s defence will be a challenge for him.

Meanwhile, Bishop’s departure — and Conacher’s arrival — changes things dramatically on the Senators’ roster. With Conacher added to the centre position, the club acquires some badly needed offensive spark with top centre Jason Spezza still sidelined following back surgery and last year’s top scorer, Milan Michalek, not ready to return from having his knee scoped.

Look for Conacher to step right into a top-six role with the Senators at centre or wing.

Back in the goal crease, Robin Lehner draws a giant sigh of relief. For weeks, Lehner has been living on borrowed time in Ottawa, assured of a place only because starter Craig Anderson was out with an ankle sprain.

Lehner’s two-way contract dictated that the 21-year-old Swede was the odd man out, the goalie for AHL Binghamton as long as Anderson and Bishop were healthy. Despite assurances from management that he had a bright future in the organization, the stress showed on Lehner. Now, he can settle in knowing he’s not going anywhere. No wonder he tweeted about his happiness on Wednesday.

Anderson has nearly recovered and he could return to start as early as Friday in Buffalo. Otherwise, he would likely back up Lehner, who stopped 47 of 50 Boston Bruins shots in a 3-2 Boston victory Tuesday night.

No longer do the Senators have a goaltending “situation,” gone is the “crowded crease syndrome.” What remains is pressure on Anderson to stay healthy and on Lehner to continue to progress into a legitimate NHL starter.

Anderson was the NHL’s top goaltender until he suffered that ankle injury Feb. 21 versus the New York Rangers.

What kind of form will he have when he returns after six weeks away from game action?

Wayne Scanlan is a sports columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.

Wayne Scanlan is a sports columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.

Photograph by: Chris Mikula, Ottawa Citizen

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