Looking back at the struggle that was the 2011-12 season for Tampa Bay Lightning forward Brett Connolly, now he simply calls it a “learning curve.”
It hasn’t been the only of its sort for the 21-year-old, who at the age of five underwent surgery after a metal gate clanked shut on his hand. Since the freak accident, Connolly’s been left with what he calls a “gimped-up hand,” but he quickly learned how to adjust.
“It was always with me, I’ve always had it, so I just kind of adapted,” he said. “There were talks of amputations and that I wasn’t going to get feeling in my hand. Thankfully I had a good surgeon and they could repair it, but everything happens for a reason I guess.”
Then he was a draft day wild card in 2010, after dealing with hip flexor problems, but the Bolts chose him anyways, at No. 6 to be exact.
Now the Lightning’s top choice in 2010 is getting his chance to show his ability to adapt and improve on his play, despite the adversity he’s faced, during this year’s camp.
Scoring just four goals and adding 11 assists in his debut season with Tampa Bay two seasons ago, Connolly failed to tally a goal in his last 50 games.
Connolly’s struggle to produce would cause his confidence to dwindle.
“Confidence is a big part of hockey and for me, when I was playing in juniors I was used to scoring more,” he said. “When I was 19, it wasn’t going that way.”
I realized what I needed to do and where I needed to get to. I got to play a lot of minutes, I got to play in the playoffs and overall it was the best thing for me. - Brett Connolly
Not managing to contribute defensively, it soon reflected in his ice time too.
“When you’re not playing defense, you’re not playing,” Connolly said. “With that, the coach didn’t play me as much and you lose confidence when you’re not playing and things don’t go your way.”
The pitfalls throughout his rookie season then led to his demotion to the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch for the 2012-13 campaign.
Not happy with the decision initially, Connolly soon came to the realization that a year with the Lightning’s farm system was just what he may have needed.
Connolly awaits his turn at a drill during on-ice training for camp.
“You want to get called up and you want to play in the NHL,” he said. “At the same time, I realized what I needed to do and where I needed to get to. I got to play a lot of minutes, I got to play in the playoffs and overall it was the best thing for me.”
Connolly responded to the change well, dishing out 63 points (31 goals, 32 assists) in 71 games during the regular season with the Crunch and another six goals and five assists during Syracuse’s Calder Cup run.
He also got the added benefit of playing nearly an entire season under Cooper, while with the Crunch.
“Cooper and I have a good relationship,” Connolly said. “I’m very happy he’s here and that I can work with him now. He’s a great coach and he was the best thing for me last year.”
Learning to deal with the challenges and write them off as part of the learning process in hockey has boasted well for a player whose calm demeanor shows a man that’s come full circle in his development.
With scrimmages set to begin Monday, it will be a chance to see if he’s continuing to build on what a year in the AHL taught the second team All-Star. It will also be a chance to pick the Lightning’s brains and see where exactly he might fit into Tampa Bay’s 2013-14 season picture.