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Confident Brett Connolly makes case for roster spot

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Three seasons ago, Brett Connolly made his NHL debut as a 19-year-old.

He skated in 68 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning that season, averaging 11-and-a-half minutes an outing after earning a spot on the team out of training camp.

The Lightning’s first-round selection in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and the sixth pick overall, Connolly scored the first of his four goals in 2011-12 during game number 12.

He had 11 assists that season. The Prince George, British Columbia native seemed a sure bet to become a mainstay in the Bolts’ lineup for years to come.

But, the last two seasons haven’t gone to plan for Connolly. He’s played in only 16 NHL games since his rookie year and has spent most of his time with the Lightning’s American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse.

Connolly’s first season in Syracuse, the Crunch finished first in their division and advanced to the Calder Cup Finals, Connolly scoring 37 goals and registering 37 assists in the regular season and postseason combined.

Before training camp last season, Connolly received high praise from Lightning vice president/general manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Jon Cooper but ended up in Syracuse again, where he had another good year (21 goals, 36 assists).

Connolly is at a watershed moment in his career. Currently on a one-year, two-way deal, he would have to clear waivers if he were to be sent down for a third-straight season.

So far, the 22-year-old, who is admittedly stronger, more mature and more confident on the ice, has made it clear with his play he’s ready to stick with the big league club for good.

“Looking back on my two years in the (AHL) was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Connolly said. “Looking back at the player I am now and the player I was before in the (AHL), it’s not even close. I give a lot of credit to Cooper and [Syracuse Crunch head coach Rob] Zettler and guys that were in the (AHL) to promote my game.”

Part of the reason for Connolly’s continued progression and renewed confidence revolves around his offseason workouts with Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. For the past three summers, Connolly has worked with Stamkos and former NHL player Gary Roberts, now a renowned trainer, in Toronto.

Connolly said the group doesn’t do a lot of on-ice activities but mainly focuses on conditioning, nutrition and getting stronger. This time around, he was able to train with the group for most of the summer, which wasn’t the case before. Last offseason, Connolly was coming off an injury that didn’t allow him to start until mid-July. The offseason before, he was with Syracuse during their Calder Cup Finals run until late June.

Stamkos has said repeatedly during training camp Connolly is a player he expects to see big things from this season after witnessing first-hand the work he put in during the offseason.

“I’m pushing for him. I hope he gets a spot on this team. He deserves it,” Stamkos said. “He’s had two great camps the last two years. It just hasn’t worked out. Hoepfully, third time’s the charm.”

Connolly didn’t get his first preseason goal until Tuesday in the Lightning’s 5-1 thrashing of the Stars in Dallas. In camp’s past, he might have gotten down on himself and frustrated after not scoring in the three preseason games prior.

This time, it just made him stronger.

“It paid off for him (Tuesday) night,” Cooper said. “I thought he’s gotten better each game he’s played in, and he had his best game (Tuesday). There are so many little things that are getting better about his game. I think guys develop at different rates, and Brett Connolly’s developing…He’s a better player today than he was a year ago today.”

OVERTIME PRACTICE

The Lightning skated four-on-four for a large chunk of Wednesday’s open-to-the-public training session in Estero to give the players practice simulating overtime. The team has yet to play an overtime game this preseason.

Wednesday’s session also allowed the coaches to get familiar with the extra frame. One of the new rules in the NHL this season, teams switch ends prior to the overtime session like they do before the second period, creating the long-change effect whereby scoring should increase.

“I totally forgot I had to switch ends there after a while,” Cooper said. “…I’m not even used to it yet. It’s different. It’s a long change. At some point you have to practice it, so we had a little fun with it, especially with all the fans.”

NABBY TIME

Evgeni Nabokov will play the entire game in goal for the Lightning Thursday at Florida. Earlier, Cooper said he envisioned letting Nabokov and Ben Bishop each play one full game and split the third, but, Wednesday, he backed off that plan and suggested Bishop might go the distance in the preseason finale on Saturday against Florida at Amalie Arena.

Bishop saved 22 of 23 shots over 60 minutes of work in the 5-1 win at Dallas on Tuesday.

DIFFICULT CHOICES

With NHL teams needing to trim their roster to 23 by Tuesday, the Lightning, currently at 28 players in camp, will have to reassign five to meet the requirement. Players like Cedric Paquette (goal and assist Tuesday), Jonathan Marchessault (two goals, two assists in preseason) and Vladislav Namestnikov (team-high five assists in preseason) aren’t making life easier for Cooper, his coaching staff and Lightning management.

“It’s tough because we’re looking at all these players here, and it’s hard to say bad things about them,” Cooper said. “Everybody’s competing hard, doing everything we ask. That’s why these last few days are really, really going to be tough for us.”

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