The mission for the Tampa Bay Lightning prospects is to make a lasting impression at the 13th annual NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., from Sept. 11-15 at Center ICE Arena. That shouldn't be too difficult a task considering both forwards are regarded as the organization's top prospects.
Some media outlets have tabbed Ashton, the 29th pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, as the future star while others have tabbed Connolly, the sixth selection in the 2010 Draft, as the better alternative. Regardless, there will be plenty of incentive for Ashton and Connolly when they step on the ice to assist their fellow Lightning prospects at the five-day tournament.
"My last season at Prince George (in the Western Hockey League) wasn't exactly what I wanted, so to have an opportunity to play in Traverse City with other prospects will be a great chance for me to prove that I am healthy and ready to begin the season," Connolly told NHL.com.
Connolly might have challenged Edmonton's Taylor Hall as the first pick last June if not for hip-flexor injuries that sidelined him for all but 16 games in 2009-10. He'll be looking to prove that he's completely over the injuries.
Ashton, meanwhile, will be out to prove his impressive showing at Tampa Bay's training camp in 2009 was no fluke. Ashton was so impressive last season that there was talk of his possibly making the team. But after signing an entry-level contract in October 2009, he was returned to the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the WHL to hone his skills.
"Being that was my first pro camp last year, I just wanted to go in and take it day by day and learn as much as I could, so I was extremely happy with how long I stuck around for," Ashton told NHL.com. "I got into a couple of exhibition games. I understood the choices they made in sending me back to junior, but I want to use that experience this year heading into camp."
Now, Ashton is determined to re-establish himself as a legitimate contender for a roster spot under first-year Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher. And it all starts with a solid showing in Traverse City.
"You have to prove yourself," he said. "All the players in the tournament are all prospects competing for a spot and they want to make their NHL team, so I think the games will be highly competitive."
The Lightning will compete in the Howe Division of the eight-team tournament and will face prospects from the host Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars, before entering the playoff round Sept. 15. The defending tournament champion Carolina Hurricanes will compete in the Gretzky Division, with the New York Rangers, Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets.
You kind of get the feeling Ashton and Connolly, who faced each other a few times in the WHL and were teammates for Team WHL in the 2009 Super Series against Team Russia, each has a bit of a chip on their shoulder.
"Brett and I have a little bit of history together, but we'll have some time to get to know one another a little bit more in Traverse," Ashton said. "He's a great player ... highly offensive. He has a lot of skill."
Connolly also is looking forward to getting further acquainted with his young teammates in Tampa, which returns to Traverse City following a one-year hiatus. The Lightning will replace the Atlanta Thrashers, who opted out of the tournament this year.
"I played on a line with Dana Tyrell
in my first year at Prince George," Connolly said. "I got pretty close with him, so it's pretty cool that he'll be in Traverse, also."
During the 2008-09 season, Connolly worked with Tyrell, a 2007 Lightning second-round pick, in Prince George and produced the first 30-goal season by a 16-year-old in the WHL since Patrick Marleau hit the mark in 1996 with the Seattle Thunderbirds.
He seemed to be picking up right where he left off in 2009-10, connecting for 4 goals and 6 points over his first seven games before suffering the hip injury that cut his season short. Connolly eventually returned to play nine games to close the season, notching a respectable 6 goals and 13 points while maintaining his high draft status.
"The WHL has been a great league for me; it has helped develop my game playing with guys who were high draft picks and were bigger and stronger," Connolly said. "It's kind of like a mini-pro league and I'm looking forward to this season -- wherever I might be playing."
Ashton's 2009-10 campaign was a virtual whirlwind. He was traded by Lethbridge to the Regina Pats, where he'd record 11 goals and 25 points in 37 games. When the Pats' season ended, the Lightning sent him to their American Hockey League affiliate in Norfolk. In 11 games with the Admirals, Ashton connected for a goal and six penalty minutes. It was the experience he received there, however, that was invaluable.
"Last season was definitely a learning experience, to go from Lethbridge to Regina to Norfolk," Ashton said. "I learned a lot since we were battling for a playoff spot, but ended up on the wrong side. It was my first taste of the pro life and being in that atmosphere was great."
Both players are looking forward to meeting the Red Wings' prospects Sept. 12 since it will mark the first time since Tampa Bay General Manager Steve Yzerman changed allegiances -- he previously spent 27 seasons in Detroit as a player and coach -- that he'll face his former team.
"You want to win every game you play and we're going out there with that mindset and I'm sure (Yzerman) is going to want a great game against the old team," Ashton said.
"To be a part of something like that would be pretty cool, but I think it'll just be another game ... business as usual," Connolly said.Follow Mike Morreale at the Traverse City Tournament on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer