Weekend notebook: Conacher excited for AHL return

Photo: China Wong/AHL

📝 by Patrick Williams

Cory Conacher wanted back in the American Hockey League, but he needed the right fit.

Having spent the past two seasons in Switzerland, Conacher was looking to come back closer to home. With a young family, still harboring National Hockey League ambitions, and looking for the intensity that the hard-nosed AHL can provide, a move back to North America became attractive.

This week Conacher found his fit, signing a tryout contract with the Belleville Senators to kick off his 12th pro season. Along with 354 regular-season AHL games (127 goals and 203 assists for 330 points), Conacher also won the Calder Cup in 2012, went to the Finals in 2015 and 2017, and won MVP and top rookie awards.

Also with 193 NHL contests to his name, the elite playmaking forward could afford to be selective looking for the proper fit. Through the summer months geography ranked high among the considerations for the product of Burlington, Ont., and while Conacher had considerable interest from other NHL organizations, Belleville was not initially in the mix of suitors.

But Conacher sat tight even if that patience was not always easy to maintain.

“At the start of the process, I thought I was the only one that hadn’t signed a contract,” Conacher said. “But then I looked out there at how many guys – high-skilled, talented guys with experience – are sitting in the same position that I was sitting in. It scares you, but at the same time it makes it that if you’ve got an opportunity, you’ve got to jump all over it.”

Beset by early-season injuries and having taken an 8-2 loss last Saturday at Rockford, the B-Sens were looking to fortify their lineup up front. Belleville is off to a 3-4-1-0 start after qualifying for the Calder Cup Playoffs last spring, and was in the market for somebody who could create offensively. Conacher can certainly do that.

This week the two sides found their match in a set of one-two moves in Belleville. Along with Conacher, Belleville brought back experienced forward Cole Cassels on an AHL deal after he began the season in Sweden. Cassels has played 355 games in the AHL, including 55 over two previous stints in Belleville during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 campaigns.

Conacher could make his Belleville debut tonight when the Lehigh Valley Phantoms visit CAA Arena. The Senators then welcome the first-place Toronto Marlies for a Saturday night showdown. And next Friday night, Belleville visits Syracuse, where Conacher spent parts of five seasons with the Crunch.

Conacher is on a tryout deal for now, something that he understands given that he has not played a game since March 8. But he hopes to convert that relationship into something more for both sides.

“[The Ottawa organization] just wants to see where I’m at,” Conacher said. “It might take a few weeks to get into game shape. This weekend should be a good test. I’m going to go as hard as I can, but at the same time I’m going to keep it simple and keep my shifts short just to see how my body reacts.

“But I’m excited. It’s a challenge. I like a challenge. It’s a tryout for me, and hopefully it can benefit [both sides] in the long run. I know that Ottawa is very close to being a playoff team, and whether I sign with Ottawa or Belleville it would be kind of cool…to help some of these talented prospects make that jump eventually to the next level.”

The Milwaukee Admirals visit the San Diego Gulls in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week tonight (10 pm ET/7 pm PT).

One of the AHL’s hottest teams, Milwaukee has won four in a row after handling the Rockford IceHogs, 6-4, on Wednesday morning. Forward Juuso Parssinen led the way with a goal and three assists and captain Cole Schneider picked up his first two goals of the season, while Yaroslav Askarov, who went 11th overall to Nashville in the 2020 NHL Draft, earned the victory with 29 saves.

The Admirals, 5-2-0-0 overall and second in the Central Division, have piled up 20 goals in their four-game winning streak, but their roster went through a shake-up Thursday when Nashville recalled leading scorer Mark Jankowski and sent forward Kiefer Sherwood to Milwaukee. Sherwood dressed for five games with Nashville, providing a goal along with an assist, after earning Second Team AHL All-Star honors with Colorado last season.


🏒 Three more AHL players made their NHL debuts in the past week. Cleveland defenseman David Jiricek, the sixth overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, debuted with Columbus, while a pair of Toronto Marlies, forward Pontus Holmberg and defenseman Filip Kral, joined the parent Maple Leafs.

🏒 The Bridgeport Islanders’ Brent Thompson joined an elite club this week, becoming the 22nd AHL head coach to win 300 games. Kevin Dineen (Utica Comets), Todd Nelson (Hershey Bears), and Roy Sommer (San Diego) are also part of that group.

With 10 seasons in Bridgeport, plus two more as an assistant coach with the parent New York Islanders, the 51-year-old Thompson has forged a coaching career following 15 pro seasons as a tough defenseman. He has been fortunate to have played for and with many influential voices.

Scott Gordon, who really brought video to me and showed me things on tape,” Thompson said. “Mike Foligno, who was intense and a passionate man [who] really demanded a lot from you in Hershey when I was with him. In the NHL, I was fortunate enough to be coached, and more so being around a lot of leaders like Larry Robinson and Wayne Gretzky just to see how they approached the game.”

Thompson has his team one point off the Atlantic Division lead at 6-1-1-0 going into a weekend featuring home dates with the Hartford Wolf Pack and Providence Bruins.

🏒 In their first meeting with Colorado since being swept in last spring’s Calder Cup Playoffs, the Ontario Reign shut out the Eagles, 2-0, last night at the Budweiser Events Center. Goaltender Matt Villalta, who gave up seven goals in a 10-1 loss in Game 1 of that division semifinal series, made 31 saves in last night’s victory, and Lias Andersson contributed both goals as the Reign (7-1-0-0) won their sixth in a row.

“I think coming in obviously you have [that playoff series] in the back of your head,” Villalta told LAKingsInsider.com afterward, “and to be honest, it left a sour taste in my mouth all summer. It was just something that you never want to happen again after getting lit up like that, especially in Game 1. I think I just wanted to go in there, have fun and just believe in myself and believe in my game, and trust all the work that I put into it so far.”

Now in his fourth AHL season, the Kings’ 2017 third-round draft pick has stopped 91 of 95 shots over his first three starts (3-0-0, 1.33, .958).

🏒 After a three-game swing through New England that produced three one-goal losses, the Charlotte Checkers are back home for a quick two-game stop. Charlotte, 4-0-0-0 at Bojangles’ Coliseum, welcomes Syracuse tonight and Saturday.

🏒 Columbus Blue Jackets netminder Joonas Korpisalo helped the Cleveland Monsters conclude a six-game trek with a win. Part of the Monsters’ 2016 Calder Cup championship team, Korpisalo joined Cleveland on a rehab assignment in his return from hip surgery and had 38 stops in a 4-2 victory last Saturday night in Syracuse.

🏒 Helping to lead the way for the AHL’s top offense (4.67 goals per game) has been Coachella Valley Firebirds forward Jesper Froden, the AHL Player of the Month for October. Froden kicked in 11 points (five goals, six assists) in six games during October.

Coachella Valley’s goaltending picture received help this week with the return of Christopher Gibson from Seattle and the addition of Shane Starrett from their ECHL affiliate, Kansas City. In 2018-19 with the Bakersfield Condors, Starrett was named to the AHL Second All-Star Team and All-Rookie Team.

🏒 Two goals from Sheldon Rempal last Saturday night helped the Henderson Silver Knights end a five-game losing streak with a 4-2 win over Colorado. Henderson faces a challenging home-and-home series with Bakersfield that opens tonight on the road.

🏒 With injuries continuing to hit the Washington Capitals, the Hershey Bears are going into a home-and-home series with the archrival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins this weekend without forwards Sonny Milano and Garrett Pilon along with defensemen Lucas Johansen on recall to Washington. Hershey will also be without captain Dylan McIlrath, who will serve a one-game suspension.

🏒 The Providence Bruins are without veteran netminder Keith Kinkaid, who was recalled to the Boston Bruins earlier this week. Kyle Keyser made 16 saves and stopped 10 of 11 shootout attempts in a 4-3 win at Utica on Wednesday; Brandon Bussi has been recalled from the team’s ECHL affiliate, Maine.

🏒 Despite a blue line that has been retooled on the fly, the Rochester Americans are moving right along. Losing defensemen Kale Clague, Jeremy Davies, and Lawrence Pilut to recall to the Buffalo Sabres while Chase Priskie and Peter Tischke have been out with injuries. The Amerks brought in veterans Brandon Davidson and Matt Bartkowski to buttress their defense corps. The Amerks took a 5-1 win in Laval last Saturday afternoon, followed by a 7-2 win over Syracuse on Wednesday.

🏒 Rockford forward David Gust scored two more goals in Wednesday’s loss to Milwaukee. Gust, the reigning Howies Hockey Tape/AHL Player of the Week, has nine points in his last three games and a league-leading 13 points (five goals, eight assists) through seven games.

🏒 While three of the teams that reached the AHL’s final four last June are still trying to find their form, the Springfield Thunderbirds are not one of them. Preparing to host Hartford tonight, they are on a 4-0-1-0 streak. Nathan Todd dealt with an injury that held him to 49 games last season, but his seven goals in eight games tie him for first overall in the AHL. Todd and linemates Nikita Alexandrov and Martin Frk combined for six goals and five assists in last Friday’s 7-6 overtime win over Bridgeport.

🏒 After missing the Calder Cup Playoffs last season for the first time since 2011, the Toronto Marlies are back in customary territory – first place. The 6-2-0-0 Marlies sit atop the North Division after a 7-4 win in Laval on Wednesday night. An offseason addition from Belleville, Logan Shaw generated his first-ever four-point night with a power-play goal, and a shorthanded tally and two assists. Toronto has the AHL’s top power play at 33.3 percent (11-for-33), one that has tallied at least once in each of the team’s first eight outings.

🏒 The Tucson Roadrunners are banking points early, picking up their fifth win in a row with a 3-1 decision in Calgary on Wednesday. The Roadrunners held the Wranglers without a shot on goal in the third period, a first in Tucson history. The 6-1-0-0 Roadrunners complete a four-game road swing in Calgary today.

“It was a good team effort,” goaltender Ivan Prosvetov (29 saves) told the team website after Wednesday’s win. “I told the boys in the locker room that I have their backs, and they have mine, and that’s how good teams play.”

🏒 Utica Comets rookie blueliner Simon Nemec, the second overall pick in this past July’s NHL Draft, has his first two AHL points. Last Friday night in a 5-1 home win against Cleveland, the 18-year-old New Jersey Devils top prospect grabbed a first-period assist before striking for his first AHL goal in the second period.

🏒 The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are looking like a significant problem for the rest of the Eastern Conference. Off to a 6-0-0-1 start, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is the last AHL team without a regulation loss. Dustin Tokarski was the AHL Goaltender of the Month for October thanks to a 1.38 GAA and .949 save percentage in five decisions (4-0-1).