Revisiting Bishop For Conacher

With the Ottawa Senators playing the Tampa Bay Lightning tomorrow night, there’s inevitably going to be a lot of conversation that focuses on last season’s trade that sent Cory Conacher and a fourth round draft pick to the Sens for Ben Bishop, because hey, hindsight.

Thanks to Bishop’s emergence as a number one starter over the first 30 games of this season and Conacher’s offensive struggles, it’s easy to surmise now that this deal unequivocally favours the Lightning, but looking at this trade in a vacuum now ignores the context of the dealt at the time.

After spraining his ankle on February 21st versus the Rangers, an injury that shelved him for 18 games, Craig Anderson’s sprain created an opportunity for Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop to thrive in his absence. And for reference, I’ve also included Andy’s pre-injury numbers to give you an idea of how well these guys fared during this stretch.

Player
Record
GAA
SO
SV%
Robin Lehner
3-3-4
2.34
0
.934
Ben Bishop
8-5-0
2.39
2
.927
Craig Anderson
8-4-2
1.49
2
.952

When Ottawa acquired Bishop during the 2011/12 season, they did so with the intent to create some internal competition who could viably challenge Lehner for the throne that Robin envisioned would one day be his. It was the kick in the ass that Lehner needed and after turning around his offseason habits and seemingly maturing overnight, he deservingly garnered a ton of praise for the way that he prepared and handled himself during the 2012/13 season.

But, it was during this stretch of ten games that the organization felt like he was ultimately ready for the NHL. And to be fair to Robin, they felt compelled to move Bishop to create room on the parent NHL roster once Anderson was healthy enough to return.

So, despite the organization having the flexibility to return the waiver exempt Lehner to Binghamton, the organization opted to move Bishop.

At the time of the trade, the Senators were in fifth place in the Eastern Conference and only five points ahead of the ninth-seeded New York Islanders. Considering the number of injuries to key personnel, the Senators were desperate for some secondary scoring – hence the team’s interest in Conacher.

I wrote at the time of the trade:

"Averaging only 2.42 goals per game, the Senators certainly can use whatever offence he can provide. Of the teams currently holding playoff seeds, only the New Jersey Devils (2.42, tied with Ottawa) and San Jose (2.34) boast similar or worse rates.

There inevitably is going to be some skepticism whether Conacher’s production is sustainable or whether he’s just the beneficiary of some quality linemates – a Brandon Bochenski if you will. I mean, it's not like Conacher is a phenom relative to his age, how much his game can still grow is anyone's guess."

The problem is, Cory’s game and production hasn’t really grown at all and if anything, his stalled growth reinforces many of the concerns that were raised at the time of his acquisition.

From the same post:

Aside from playing 40% of his even-strength minutes with Stamkos, I can’t help but allude to a number of other factors which help explain Conacher’s production:

- Amongst Tampa forwards who have played in 20 or more games this season, Conacher has played against the second easiest competition.
- His has a shooting percentage of 17.0%, scoring 9 goals on 53 shots.
- He has the fifth-highest offensive zone start percentage on the team at 54.3%.
- When on the ice at 5v5, he and his teammates have an on-ice shooting percentage of 10.41%.

Yet, despite these benefits and the fact that he plays with alongside an elite player like #91, Conacher's possession metrics aren't exactly fantastic. It's a cause for concern and something that should weigh on the minds of Senators fans who might see this as a can't-miss homerun. 

Homerun?

No, but at this point, I think most fans would settle for a double.

Here’s what the current numbers show us since his torrid start to his NHL career:

Games
G
PTS
SH
SH/gm
PTS/gm
1-19
7
18
35
1.84
0.95
20-56
6
16
66
1.17
0.29

If anything can be said of Conacher, it’s that he does have value as a ‘pest’ or agitating player. Proportionate to his ice-time, Cory draws 2.1 penalties per 60 minutes of 5v5 ice-time – which is tied for the 20th highest rate in the NHL.

Aside from that and that one glorious, oh so glorious goal from last year’s playoffsl, it’s tough to get excited about what Cory has brought to the table thus far. Maybe it’s because he was branded as an offensive-minded player who has produced at every level? Or maybe I’m just frustrated because I think he’s capable of more.

Take this Paul MacLean quote from training camp when contrasting the differences between players who could potentially fill in on Alfie’s vacant second line right wing spot:

"What we're looking for is the guy that earns the job," MacLean said of the opening created by Daniel Alfredsson's departure. "If it's Mark Stone, he might be a little bit bigger but not as fast. If it's Mike Hoffman, he's not as big but he's faster and maybe he's got a touch more skill. Conacher's maybe not as fast as Hoffman but maybe his puck skills are (better). Shane Prince has actually played pretty well as well.”

If he’s skilled with the puck, I wish to see it more frequently. Given his focus and dedication to his role as a ‘pest’, I wonder if it’s created a bit of an identity crisis for him as a player. For a guy who has success putting up points at other levels, he has the fourth lowest Corsi For/60 amongst forwards on the Senators.

According to Don Brennan’s latest however, Cory feels like he’s growing as a player:

"As far as me being in Ottawa, obviously the points are decreasing, but at the same time I think I'm learning to play an overall better game, defensively and in the neutral zone, and making the simple plays, whereas in Tampa I was kind of all over the map. Because we would win 6-5 and 7-4 and those big games in Tampa, that's when I was getting all the points."

As Scott showed in an excellent post this fall, Conacher’s history gives reason for optimism, even if he was relatively old for a rookie:

League
GP
G
A
PTS
SH
SH%
PTS/gm
SH/gm
NCAA
129
62
85
147
414
15.0
1.14
3.21
AHL
118
55
59
114
305
18.0
0.97
2.58
NHL
47
11
18
29
67
16.4
0.62
1.43

The ECAC isn't NHL level goaltending and neither is the AHL. I wouldn't expect he'd continue scoring on 16.4% of his shots over a full NHL season. But even if his "true talent" settles in the NHL at 12-13%, that's still second-line skill. Turris for example has only shot 9.0% for his career; having more efficient wingers flanking him seems like a smart idea to me.

And a drop in shooting percentage can be compensated for by an increase in shot rate. Conacher's shot rate increased every year of college, his senior season he averaged 3.97 SH/gm. The year he was awarded MVP honours in the AHL he averaged 2.84 SH/gm. I don't think it's crazy to imagine he could average 2.00 SH/gm this season."

The problem is that he’s averaging 1.21 shots per game this season and if he keeps playing in a bottom six capacity with limited minutes, I can’t envision that rate going up any time soon. And if Conacher remains as a league average bottom six player, he’s just a placeholder until the organization decides that one of their prized wingers in Binghamton can bring more to the table.

Getting back to the Brennan article that I referenced earlier, it essentially asks the question of whether or not the Senators made the mistake of trading Bishop for Conacher and a fourth round pick.

According to GM Bryan Murray, he has no regrets.

"It wasn't anything about Cory Conacher and Ben Bishop. It was, do we keep Robin Lehner or do we keep Ben Bishop," Murray told reporters as he watched the Senators practice Wedensday at Tampa Bay Times Forum. And from the offset, we felt Robin Lehner is a guy in the future, and now is the future for him, that is going to be a top end goaltender in the NHL. So that's why the trade was made. If I hadn't of traded Ben Bishop, you guys would be asking me today, 'what the hell are you doing with three goaltenders? And who's starting tomorrow night? And that's really wrong, what you're doing'. I couldn't have signed (Bishop) to another contract and kept Robin and Craig (Anderson)."

Interesting logic that. It’s the kind that would be easier to stomach if Derek Grant, who still deserves to be here, were still on this parent roster and simply wasn’t a roster casualty who was sent down because Matt Kassian is on a one-way contract.

At the time on Twitter, I remember asking, is there anything in Robin Lehner’s numbers, confidence, play or makeup to suggest that he wasn’t ready for a job in the NHL.

Obviously the organization made the move to create room for Robin, so they agreed me with there.

But, being fair to Robin notwithstanding, the organization had all the leverage in the world to bide their time and wait until the offseason to decide which goaltender to move to create space for Robin.

But getting back to Brennan’s article, the option to return Robin to Binghamton simply wasn’t there for the organization.

"Dealing goalie Ben Bishop to the Lightning for winger Cory Conacher and a fourth round draft pick was all about having limited options. He could either, A) shake hands with Steve Yzerman, B) take a late second round (which originally belonged to Anaheim) along with a "bad contract" from the Edmonton Oilers, or C) get nothing at all for Bishop when he left as a free agent in the summer. Nobody else was offering anything, and Murray couldn't wait for that to change."

As Elliotte Friedman noted in 30 Thoughts a few weeks back, the return from Edmonton also included a third round pick. Whether these futures would have been more valuable to the organization as stockpiled draft picks or as trade chips (ie. to soften the blow of acquiring Ryan perhaps) is subject to debate, but the truth of the matter is that the Senators did have more options than the ones that Don presented in his article.

The organization could have sent down Lehner. He could have played in more games in the AHL and continued to bide his time knowing that he was going to get a full-time gig. At the same time, this decision would have given the organization the flexibility to move Bishop or sell high on Anderson in the offseason.

Moreover, the Plan C that Brennan cited simply wasn’t that cut and dry. Ben Bishop was an impending RFA, not an impending unrestricted free agent. Ottawa still owned his rights and would not have lost him without getting anything in return.

Of course the trade looks terrible in hindsight, that much is obvious, but much like his teammates, there’s still time for Conacher to figure things out. And similarly, we can’t pretend that Tampa Bay didn’t take on any risk by acquiring Bishop and anointing him as their number one starter. Moreover, there’s still hope that Tobias Lindberg – the fourth round pick that they acquired from Tampa – can pan out. (Note: if you want to keep score of the trade over the following years, the 2013 second rounder that Ottawa gave up to acquire Bishop turned out to Tommy Vanelli.)

When asked for his assessment of the deal, Conacher had this to say:

"Being traded is all about how you fit in a team. As far as Bishop being in Ottawa, he wasn't really much of an asset. You can't say he's better, or just as good as Lennie or Anderson, because they're both really good goalies, and maybe if one of them got traded to Tampa, they could be doing the same thing. He went in there knowing that he was going to be a starting goaltender, and he got the confidence. So he just fit well in Tampa Bay.”

Cory’s right. Bishop might not have had much value at the time but he was a known commodity to the Ottawa Senators. They could have simply retained him and moved the more marketable commodity in Anderson. For a cash strapped team like the Sens, moving Andy’s salary and reallocating that money to address another need might have made sense. Considering how ballyhooed these ‘Ottawa can’t afford to take on salary’ stories are, maybe the Senators could have used the financial flexibility without experiencing hopefully too much of a drop off in goaltending performance.

"People wish that they didn't trade Bishop and they traded maybe one of the other goalies, but you couldn't say that at the time and it's hard to foresee the future."

It’s all true, but the warning flags were there and the Senators chose to ignore them. They rolled the dice on the short-term (pardon the pun) addition who could address a current problem of theirs – a player who put up ten of his 24 points playing on a line with Steven Stamkos and another eight playing on a line with Vinny Lecavalier.

Ottawa could have followed Steve Yzerman’s lead by selling high on a player who was expendable, but they elected not to because they wanted to have a more competitive roster at that moment. So be it, but it will never excuse them from selling a prospective number one starter to a 2013/14 Atlantic Division rival; especially since the Senators will have to move or let Anderson go to create room for Lehner.

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