Conacher wins Tavares – Okposo sweepstakes (for now)

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After enjoying the luxury of lining John Tavares and Kyle Okposo up with strong wingers in Thomas Vanek and Matt Moulson, the 2014-15 New York Islanders enter the season with a tough call to make in finding their dynamic duo a new running mate.

Do you go with a skilled but inexperienced player like Ryan Strome, lean toward the size route with someone like Anders Lee or Brock Nelson or maybe see if a promotion may finally get more out of a guy like Josh Bailey?

Considering how frequently NHL head coaches rummage through different combinations, it’s not wise to make too big a deal out of this, but New York Newsday’s Arthur Staple reports that Cory Conacher is primed to start on the top line with Tavares and Okposo.

Conacher’s big chance

Not bad for a guy who wasn’t qualified by the lowly Buffalo Sabres this offseason after the team claimed him off of waivers from the struggling Ottawa Senators late in 2013-14. Not bad for an under-sized player who will likely be doubted for the entirety of his NHL career (and might ultimately be know as “the other part of the Ben Bishop trade.”)

There’s some solid logic to giving the 24-year-old a shot, though. Despite the classic logic of “A fire hydrant can score 50 goals with Mario Lemieux,” not every player ends up being the right fit for excellent linemates.

Conacher began his NHL career with a flurry of activity, scoring nine points in six January games and 18 in his first 24 while serving as a great fit with Steven Stamkos. That happened in 2012-13, so it’s not like he’s that far from successes, and he was a scoring demon in the AHL to boot (80 points in 75 games with Norfolk in 2011-12, for one thing).

Seriously, just watch him fire home this shot after a great Tavares pass:

While it’s probably fair to assume that he’s somewhat responsible for his struggles since being traded from Tampa Bay in 2012-13, it’s plausible that he wasn’t always given the benefit of the doubt in Ottawa or Buffalo. This is obviously an enormous opportunity for Conacher to prove that he belongs as not just an NHL player, but maybe a top-six forward.

Here are Staple’s projected lines:

Grabovski and Kulemin split

One other interesting takeaway is that Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin seem primed to start on different lines. Also, if Staple is being literal with the way he’s lining up those players, that would mean Grabovski would be on the wing. That’s not totally out of left field considering his spin as a winger with Tavares and Okposo, yet most associate the solid possession player as a pivot.

Whether it’s at center or on the wing, it’s a little surprising to see Grabovski and Kulemin apart, as they seemed like great compliments to each other as solid defensive forwards.

That said, Nielsen often inspires “secret Selke”-type praise, so moving Kulemin with him isn’t exactly outrageous.

Circling back, these combinations could change as early as New York’s first moment of struggles for all we know. Maybe the greatest takeaway is that the Islanders now have a host of choices, which is a “dilemma” they’ve likely been craving for some time.