Carter Ashton and Brett Connolly have already accomplished a lot in their hockey careers before their 20th birthday. In the next month, the two Lightning first-round draft choices could add more cherished memories.
Ashton, 19, and Connolly, 18, were named this past Monday to Team Canada’s World Junior Championship Selection Camp Dec. 12-15 in Toronto. Both are among 23 forwards battling for positions on the team for the event, which begins Dec. 26 in Buffalo for the Canadians with a game against Russia.
“It’s an honor to make it to the next step,” said Ashton, who plays for the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League.
Connolly, who plays with the Prince George Cougars of the WHL, said it was a “exciting” to get the call.
Ashton had a chance to play at Team Canada’s summer camp in St. John’s, Newfoundland and stated his case. Team Canada officials thought it was better for Connolly to continue his summer training after recovering from hip injuries that limited him to 16 games for Prince George in 2009-10. Connolly said that worked out as a benefit for him.
Both are ready for the challenge.
“I just want to go in and play the way I know I can play, not try to do too much and try to be a complete player on the ice,” said Connolly, picked sixth by the Lightning in last June’s draft. “I want to work hard and do what I do best.”
Connolly played for Team Canada at the World Under-18 Championships the last two years and Ashton has played for his country at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial event among other competitions.
“I’m just going to stick with the things that I’ve had success with,” said Ashton, picked 29th by the Lightning at the 2009 NHL draft. “I want to use my size and speed and go to the net.”
Ashton, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound right wing, is going to camp on a hot streak with eight goals in his previous nine games. Ashton, who had 24 goals and 27 assists in 65 games for Lethbridge and Regina last season, ended November with 14 goals and eight assists in 26 games.
Connolly’s Cougars defeated Ashton’s Pats, 5-3, on November 26. Connolly had a goal. While Regina is struggling, Prince George has been a nice surprise, climbing to first place in the B.C. Division of the Western Conference after having the lowest point total among all the teams in the WHL last season. Connolly has been a big reason, with 20 goals and 13 assists in 26 games through the end of November. The 6-2, 181-pound forward is currently on a five-game point streak (5 goals, 3 assists).
“Our GM did a great job bringing in new players,” Connolly said. “It’s been a nice start for us. We’re hoping to build on it and continue to turn heads.”
Connolly said he is 100 percent healthy after a hard-luck year.
“I think I needed to get off to a good start and I did,” Connolly said. “There was a stretch where I wasn’t getting the bounces, but I’ve been able to find my game since then.
“I haven’t felt [the hip injury] at all. My strength in my lower body is a lot better than it’s been. I’m feeling fast and strong. I think I’ve improved in a lot of areas.”
Connolly said he got a lot from the Lightning Development Camp in July and the team’s training camp in September. He got a taste of the pace in two exhibition games and tested himself.
Ashton, who played 11 games for Norfolk of the American Hockey League late last season, also played two exhibition games and contributed two goals.
“That was huge for me,” Ashton said. “I had the opportunity to play with great players.”
Both are looking forward to the future, but they are patient.
“As a young player, you dream of playing in the NHL,” said Ashton, whose father Brent played 998 NHL games and played for Team Canada in the World Championships in 1989. “But I understand the route [the Lightning] are taking with young players. I’m just going to do everything in my power to improve every day.”
Connolly said he has the same mindset, determined to round out his game. The NHL chance will be there for both soon enough.
Now, they just want to earn a trip to Buffalo for Christmas.