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Brett Connolly looks to make the most of his opportunity in the American Hockey League

by Peter Pupello / Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Brett Connolly has stated on numerous occasions his desire to play for a championship team.

Fortunately for him, he might just earn that chance sooner than he expected.

Connolly will open the season with the Bolts’ top AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, a club that contains a majority of Lightning prospects who won a Calder Cup championship as the Norfolk Admirals just four months ago.

According to Crunch general manager Julien BriseBois, Connolly’s presence in Syracuse should benefit him both in the short term, as well as in his long-term development.

“There a number of quality players in the American Hockey League this year, and that competition is going to give Brett the closest thing to NHL hockey this year,” BriseBois said. “There have been a number of instances in which established NHL players have been assigned to the AHL, and they went down there and took on bigger roles and played more minutes. They then became impact players at the NHL level. We don’t see this situation with Brett to be any different.”

As a point of reference, Ottawa Senators forward Jason Spezza set the standard for two-way NHL players during the last lockout during the 2004-05 season. During that time, Spezza appeared in 80 games for Binghamton of the AHL, scoring 32 goals and recording 85 assists. The next season, when NHL action returned in 2005-06, Spezza notched 90 points, which accounted for 35 more than his total in his previous NHL campaign.

“There is certainly going to be a benefit, even for those who already have NHL experience,” BriseBois added. “He’ll get a chance to play in all types of different situations, and he’ll be looked upon to be a leader coming from playing in Tampa Bay last season. Even though he will start at the AHL level, this should be looked at as a very important year for him.”

Connolly knows that much.

Although he skated in 68 games with the Lightning last season, and received a good dose of NHL exposure which he now carries with him under his belt, there were areas that even he noted were in need of improvement.

Connolly’s four goals and 15 points made for an admirable rookie season, but his minus-9 rating indicated that he would have to prove himself as much more than just an offensive player.

“I know the skill is there, and I know I’ve always been viewed as an offensive player, but last season really taught me a lot, especially the importance of being reliable defensively and being a solid two-way player,” Connolly said. “I feel like I got better during the second half of the season and towards the end of the regular season, but I want more and still feel as if I have to prove myself every day.”

Luckily for Connolly, there’s teammate Steven Stamkos who experienced much of the same pressure several years ago upon being the first overall pick at the 2008 NHL Draft.

In addition to skating with Stamkos on the ice, Connolly joined the reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner during the offseason in Toronto to work out with fitness extraordinaire Gary Roberts. Paired with fast-paced, high-intensity workouts that focused around nutrition, the idea was that proper training could help Connolly improve rather quickly.

“Obviously we’ve all seen how good Stammer has become in a short period of time since he entered the league a few years back, so I thought, if that’s what it takes in the summers, then I want to be a part of that too,” Connolly added.

The hard work has already seemed to have paid off, as just this past weekend, Connolly helped the Crunch complete a three-game preseason sweep of the St. John’s Ice Caps.

In the second game of the set, Connolly helped Syracuse overcome a two-goal deficit by scoring not once, but twice, as his tally in the shootout stood up as the game-winner.

According to Crunch teammate Mike Angelidis, Connolly looked strong in front of the net, which perhaps comes as a result of skating better without the puck, allowing him to create more scoring opportunities near and around the goal for his Syracuse teammates.

“Coming into this year, I knew I needed to make an impression,” Connolly said. “I felt like I needed to change a lot of things not just in my game, but off the ice like learning how to be a professional. I think right now playing in Syracuse will give me the best opportunity to do that, so I’m looking forward to improving as a player down there in my own game and contributing in any way I can to help that team win.”

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