Remember this name: Brett Connolly.
The 20-year-old right wing has raised eyebrows with his first-place Syracuse Crunch, taking the American Hockey League by storm and distinguishing himself as one to watch.
His season would be a great start for a young player looking to work his way to the NHL, but for Connolly, the route has been a little more circuitous.
Selected by Tampa Bay with the sixth pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, the Campbell River, British Columbia native made the leap straight from juniors to the NHL last season. He appeared in 68 games with the Lightning, scoring four goals with 11 assists.
"I learned a lot last year and it was a lot of fun," Connolly said of sharing time with Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. "Whenever someone gets to play in the NHL, it's a great accomplishment and a great experience. It was a very good year."
Now in his first season in the AHL, Connolly's offensive production has almost quadrupled from his rookie pro campaign, already with 26 goals and 56 points in 64 games with the Crunch, Tampa Bay's primary affiliate.
But he's the first to admit he didn't score those points alone.
"I give a lot of credit to my teammates, my linemates, whoever I've been playing with at the time," Connolly said. "The coaching staff's been great with ice time and working with me in different areas. It's been good for me."
Until this week, that coaching staff had been led by reigning AHL Coach of the Year and Calder Cup champion Jon Cooper. He spent three seasons developing the Lightning's top prospects and preparing them for the NHL, a jump he made himself when he was hired as Tampa Bay's coach Monday night, replacing Guy Boucher.
The Crunch have spent the season carving their way to the top of the standings, with a 39-18-3-5 record for 86 points. Though the wins are welcome, Connolly said his former -- and future -- coach remained focused on developing each player's talent individually.
"He's a very positive guy and he works with you every single day to correct little parts of your game that need to be fixed in order to be a better player," Connolly said of Cooper. "He's a guy who's been hard on me since the day I got to Syracuse and it's helped out tremendously. He holds me accountable every day. For me, that's something that's needed.
"It's nice going to the rink and knowing that you have a coach there that believes in you and plays you a lot. I give him a lot of credit for my success this year."
With a talented roster that took home the Calder Cup in Norfolk last year before an affiliation change, Syracuse has sent 12 players to Tampa Bay this season, which presents a unique personnel situation for the Crunch.
"Our core guys, the older guys, are good guys in the locker room and good leaders," Connolly said of picking up the slack. "They're guys who are very competitive and want to win every single night. I think for us, we have a lot of depth."
He suggests the roster movement is one of the team's strengths.
"Moving forward, it's going to be good for us to have the guys up there now (in the NHL) and playing a lot and getting better before the playoffs," Connolly said. "It's very exciting going down the stretch here."
As the Crunch barrel toward the postseason, Connolly will continue to develop his skills.
"Being put in the key situations on a daily basis is something that's going to help me get better as a player and as a professional," said Connolly, who scored 46 goals in 59 games during his final junior season at Prince George (Western Hockey League). "Just getting back to being consistent every night and being a go-to guy on a team, on a good team, it's something that's only going to help me.
"It's been a very good year. I've learned a lot and improved my game so much. Now I feel like I'm playing the best hockey I ever have."
As for the quality of competition in the AHL, Connolly explains that though the stage might be smaller, the stakes have never been higher.
"I don't think a lot of people give the American League as much credit as it deserves. It's a very hard league," he said. "Every single night it's tough-checking and in-your-face kind of hockey. It's a different kind of game with people playing every night for spots and jobs.
"It's a league where you've got guys giving it their best every single night."
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