Part of the fun of following sports is being able to debate decisions long after they’ve been made
This is why it is so refreshing when a team trades, say, a 27-year old future 3-time Vezina finalist for a player they lose on waivers less than a calendar year later. No one in their right mind could defend that, right?
Even the worst trades can find some clown on the internet to defend them so today, I will be putting on my proverbial oversized pants and suspenders and shoot sweet content into your eyes from a flower lapel. It’s time for me to defend Ottawa trading Cory Conacher for Ben Bishop.
First a disclaimer: Do I own a Cory Conacher Heritage jersey? Yes. Did I just create his player entry on the new Sens Lore Wiki? Yes. Did my doctor’s office have a poster of Cory Conacher telling patients to be aware of the causes and symptoms of Type 2 diabetes? Obviously, that would be an oddly specific thing to make up. So yes, it’s possible I’m not a completely unbiased source on the subject, but if you bear with me I think I can help you see the truth that has evaded you for so long.
In order to understand why this trade was actually good, we have to go back to the 2011-12 season. In their second year of their rebuild, Ottawa beat the odds and snuck into the playoffs before going up 3-2 against the top seed in the East, the New York Rangers. Although they failed to hold on and lost the series in seven games, the message was clear: the rebuild was over. That off-season, Erik Karlsson won his first Norris Trophy at the age of 22 and the future was bright for the team.
The 2012-13 season was shortened by a lock-out but Ottawa once again looked poised for a playoff spot, with their sights set on going deeper than the year before. Karlsson missed most of the season with an Achilles injury suffered at the foot of Matt Cooke but the team was saved by burgeoning youth and, most of all, otherworldly goaltending.
Injuries limited Craig Anderson to only 24 of the 48 games that year, but when he played he was outstanding, posting a 1.69 GAA and a .941 save percentage. Thrust into 12 games in his first full season at the NHL level, 22-year old Robin Lehner posted a nearly as good .936 mark. Bishop’s performance left him third on the depth chart, although his .922 save percentage would be more than enough to start for most teams.
It was clear that with Anderson coming back, Ottawa’s crowded crease gave them a clear position where they could ship someone else to improve the team. With Anderson firmly entrenched in the number one role when healthy, Lehner, who had long been seen as the goalie of the future, had the edge on the older Bishop.
Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay, the Lightning had just fired Guy Boucher as the team was set to miss the playoffs for the second straight year after a surprise run to the Conference finals, I’ll pause for a second to let that sink in. Tampa Bay’s new coach Jon Cooper would eventually deliver a championship and parts of the core were already emerging, including Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ondrej Palat. At the time, it seemed like Conacher, an undrafted rookie with 9 goals in 35 games could be a part of the next wave of talent in Tampa.
But the Lightning needed goaltending as Andrei Vasilevskiy was a few years away from even coming over from Russia, and the current tandem of Anders Lindback and Mathieu Garon wasn’t going to cut it. So at the 2013 trade deadline, the teams made a deal, Ottawa sent Bishop to Tampa Bay for Conacher and a fourth-round pick.
The trade immediately looked like a win for both sides. Conacher slowed down a little in Ottawa with 2 goals in 9 games, but still ended the season with 11 goals in 47 games, a 19 goal pace in an 82-game season. Conacher added 3 goals in 8 playoff games while helping the Sens beat Montreal in the first round and developing a reputation as an agitator. His biggest goal came in the dying seconds of Game 4 against Montreal when it looked like the Canadiens were about to tie the series, but Conacher paved the way for a Kyle Turris overtime winner and Ottawa took the series in 5.
In Tampa, Bishop put up a solid .917 save percentage in 9 games the rest of the way, earning himself the starter’s job and a nice two-year contract extension. Yzerman’s vision was starting to take shape with Bishop locked in between the pipes.
In 2015, Bishop would lead Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup Finals where the Lightning lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Lightning would face their shares of ups and downs before finally winning it all in 2020. Of course, this was without Bishop, who was traded in 2017 to pave the way for Vasilevskiy and watched injured from the sidelines as his Dallas Stars were the team that lost to Tampa this past season. Bishop gave Tampa Bay borderline elite play in his time with the team, something that definitely could not be said about Cory Conacher in Ottawa.
There’s no other way to put this, Conacher turned out to be a bust. In 60 games with Ottawa in 2013-14, Conacher scored just four goals to go along with 16 assists as Ottawa took a step back and missed the playoffs. Conacher didn’t even get to finish the season with Ottawa though, as he was claimed off waivers by the Buffalo Sabres in March, just a couple of days over 11 months from when Ottawa gave up what turned out to be a franchise goalie for him.
Conacher bounced around the league for another couple of seasons before heading off to Switzerland. He would come back and play parts of 4 seasons in a second stint in Tampa Bay before once again signing in Switzerland this off-season.
So yes, Tampa Bay won the trade. That was never really in doubt. What I want to argue now is that it was a good trade for Ottawa to make at the time. I’ve already laid it out above but at the time Ottawa was looking to get better now while still maintaining their young core. They not only managed to do that but they looked like they even improved their future outlook by adding Conacher.
Ottawa was also going to end up trading at least one of their three goalies anyways, and while there’s a case to be made for all three, Anderson went on to become possibly the best goalie in team history while Lehner fetched the team a first-round pick (used on Colin White) and got them out of David Legwand‘s contract.
Another look at the similarities between Tampa Bay in 2013 and Ottawa now sees that Ottawa has made a similar trade by acquiring Matt Murray. Pittsburgh had their own goaltending logjam with Murray and Tristan Jarry having split time last season and the looming expansion draft meaning they couldn’t keep both long-term.
Ottawa gave up prospect Jonathan Gruden and a second-round pick for Murray and while the second is higher than the fourth Ottawa got for Bishop, the difference is likely made up by the players swapped. While Conacher had already made the NHL and was one of Tampa Bay’s top contributors at the time of the trade, Gruden was only an honourable mention when The Athletic’s Corey Pronman ranked Ottawa’s prospects.
While Gruden is still just 20 and when Conacher was that age he was just an undrafted NCAA player, there is simply way more uncertainty of how or if Gruden can produce at the NHL level while Conacher had already shown a small sample of what he was capable of.
While he’s been inconsistent the past few years, Murray is also more proven than Bishop was at the time, having been a regular starter and winning two Stanley Cups. Tampa Bay took a risk trading for Bishop and it paid off, the notion that he was a lock to become a high-end NHL goalie at that time of the trade is simply not true.
Trading Ben Bishop for Cory Conacher made the Sens better at a time when they were looking to add for a playoff run. It probably should’ve worked out well for the team in the long-run, as Bishop found another gear in his late twenties, as goalies sometimes do, and Conacher fell off a cliff after a solid rookie campaign, as skaters sometimes do. The fourth-round pick ended up being Tobias Lindberg, who at one point was an intriguing prospect and part of the Dion Phaneuf trade but never put it together, eventually having a second stint in the Sens’ minor league system before heading off to Europe.
It would certainly have been nice for Conacher to work out better, or even if Lindberg became a Senator, and it definitely would have eased the sting of seeing Bishop thrive elsewhere, but in the end, it didn’t drastically impact the team’s chances at winning nor was it a bad move at the time. Sometimes everything goes wrong in the NHL and that’s what happened here.