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Connolly, Ashton Looking to Make the Next Step

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

The 30 prospects who participated in the Lightning’s Development Camp this summer all reside on different rungs of the long ladder to the NHL.

Players like Bolts’ 2011 first-round pick Vladlslav Namestnikov are making their initial steps. The camp veterans were trying to show how much they had climbed in the last year.

Dev Camp Photos

Carter Ashton and Brett Connolly have now completed five development camps between them and if this year’s prospects showcase in Brandon was any indication, the two Lightning first-round picks are getting a lot closer to their NHL debuts.

Lightning Vice President and GM Steve Yzerman has never wavered from his plan to be extra patient with prospects. But Ashton, 20, and Connolly, 19, will certainly get a good, long look at training camp.

“They’re going to get the opportunity,” Yzerman said. “My decision will be, if they’re ready to play, I want them playing. I don’t want them being healthy scratches. You don’t want that for the young guys here. We’ll see how it goes in camp. They’ll all get a chance to play [in exhibition games].”

Connolly, picked sixth overall in 2010, produced 46 goals in 59 games for the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League last season and won a silver medal with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships.

But those are not necessarily the numbers that have the Lightning so optimistic.

“What I was most impressed by is his physical appearance,” Norfolk coach Jon Cooper said, during camp. “Last year at this time, he kind of looked like a frail little boy. When I saw him this year, he was looking like a man. He’s dedicated himself to the weight room and taken all the right steps to be where he needs to be.”

Yzerman spoke with Connolly during the season.

“Steve was up front with me,” said Connolly, a 6-foot-2, 181-pound wing. “He told me the only way I was going to make the jump to the next level was if I got stronger and worked on my game. I took that to heart and really wanted to make strides as a player.”

A minor shoulder injury ended his junior season, when the Cougars lost in the first round. Connolly decided to move to Toronto to work with trainers on his strength and his skating with hockey-specific drills. It has been a major plus.

Yzerman said he was pleased with Connolly’s commitment.

“After looking at the results of the fitness testing, he is stronger, particularly the power in the legs,” Yzerman said. “That’s very encouraging. He has more jump.

“What we really liked about him last year at camp was his hockey sense. He knew where to go and where to put the puck in drills and scrimmages, playing with our top guys. He just needed to get quicker and stronger.”

Connolly went back to Toronto after development camp to continue to off season training. Due to his age, he would not be eligible to play in the American Hockey League next season. He can play for the Lightning or spend one more season in juniors.

Ashton’s junior career is over after scoring 87 goals the last three seasons – a career-high 33 in 2010-11.

The 6-3, 215-pound wing performed well for the Lightning in preseason last year, scoring two goals, but Yzerman said he wanted him playing a lot of minutes in juniors as a 19-year-old.

Ashton had 17 goals and 27 assists in 33 games for Tri-City of the WHL after being traded by Regina. He also put up three goals and five assists in 10 playoff games. But he may have impressed even more, playing in a checking role for Team Canada at the World Juniors.

“It’s pretty big to be able to diversify yourself as a player, play different roles,” Ashton said. “I was honored to make the team and I knew right away what kind of role I would have. I accepted it as a challenge.”

Yzerman said he was not surprised at Ashton’s play at the World Juniors. He sees him as a reliable player on both ends of the ice, who can produce points.

“A big thing for young players is they have to figure out what they are going to be in the NHL, how to make a team, how to stay in the league and how to become an effective player,” Yzerman said. “He’s a good skater, he’s got good hands and he’s a big, strong guy. His game is to be getting to the net, going up and down the wings, being strong corners and hanging on to the puck to make plays.”

Ashton will have to be a little better physically and mentally to make the final steps.

“He’s been a little bigger and stronger than most of the players he’s played against while he’s been growing up,” Cooper said. “Now he’s going against guys that are bigger and stronger than him and he’s going to have to adapt.”

Ashton said he has a lot to learn, many more workouts to battle through this summer before camp. He wants to take advantage of his opportunity.

“That’s the way you have to come in,” Ashton said. “There’s going to be a lot of guys competing for a spots and you have to prove yourself.”

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