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Connolly receives high praise for performance at World Juniors tournament

by Peter Pupello / Tampa Bay Lightning

It’s one thing for Brett Connolly to be praised by his own head coach and Tampa Bay Lightning teammates, but quite another to be called “Team Canada’s best player” at the World Juniors tournament by a member of the national media.

But that’s just what Connolly was, at least according to TSN analyst Ray Ferraro.

“I thought he was tremendous,” Ferraro said. “He was aggressive, he was committed, and what impressed me most was that he was willing to fit into any role the coaching staff put him in. Overall, I just thought he was all over the ice in every single game and was as good on the first day of the tournament as he was on the last day.”

Connolly’s statistics in the annual competition were perhaps as impressive as the rave reviews he received while playing in his second and final appearance in the tournament.

Through six games, Connolly had five goals and added an assist, while also recording a plus-four rating en route to helping Canada bring home a bronze medal. He scored a goal in each of Canada’s first five games and in all but one game of the tournament overall. He was also honored as one of Canada’s top three players selected in the post-tournament coaches’ poll, along with Phoenix first-round pick Brandon Gormley and Ottawa sixth-round selection Mark Stone.

“It was good,” Connolly said of his experience. “I got to play alongside a lot of good players and got to be around a lot of great coaches. It was a very positive experience and I’m glad I got to be a part of it.”

Ferraro also didn’t hesitate to place Connolly in elite company even among the forward’s own fellow prospects in the tournament.

Speaking to Connolly’s five-game goal-scoring streak to open the games, the analyst placed the Lightning rookie’s performance in the same light as that of tournament MVP Yevgeni Kuznetsov, who finished the World Juniors with 13 points.

Aside from the goals, however, Ferraro said he was most impressed with Connolly’s overall game, which he attributed to the 19-year-old’s experience in the NHL.

“It certainly didn’t hurt,” Ferraro stated of Connolly’s time with the Lightning prior to the start of the games. “This season he got the opportunity to play in the NHL against some of the best players in the world, and he’s been asked to focus on certain details of his game that he’s never been asked to focus on before, so I think he came back to the tournament this year, and right away, you could tell - even though he was at the age he is, it just looked like he was an older, more mature player than a lot of the other junior guys.”

That same maturity was on display when Connolly, while under scrutiny from both the media and Canada’s coaching staff, embraced his role on the club’s checking line, requiring him to be more physical in going up against opposing teams’ top lines.

He even admitted that he "wasn't good enough" on the first day of camp and that the first few days were difficult.

“When you go to a tournament like that, coming back from the NHL, you want to be out there all the time and doing everything,” Connolly said. “That didn't happen at first, so I think for me, I had to look in the mirror and let my ego go at the door right away. When I got there at the start, I could have handled it a little better.”

He did, and from then on, thrived in what was mostly an unfamiliar role and refocused his game, while asserting himself as more of a leader.

“You know, let’s face it, he didn’t have a real good start to the selection camp,” Ferraro added. “The coaches challenged him and they wanted more from him, and I thought he really, really responded. He showed incredible character.”

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