chose not to get into specifics regarding the conversation he had with Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher back in early February that ultimately led to the rookie forward being benched for the first time in his young NHL career.
But whatever it was that was said, it certainly seemed to work.
Connolly has three points in his past five games and has logged double-digit numbers in ice time in all but two of his past nine games.
While the figures aren’t exactly eye-popping, they are refreshing to see, considering that the 19-year-old forward has struggled for the majority of the past three months just to earn playing time in the Bolts’ lineup.
But lately, as personnel on the Lightning roster began to diminish as a result of both injuries and trades, so did Connolly’s time watching from the bench.
“I needed to be better,” Connolly said. “I knew that I had been struggling in my game defensively, but I’ve been playing a lot more recently, getting more ice time, and I think the coaches are trusting me in a number of different situations, so that has really helped my confidence. I think that’s been the biggest difference.”
And what a difference it’s been.
After starting the season strong with four goals and eight points in his first 22 games, including 20 contests in which he registered 11 minutes or more in ice time, Connolly hit a dry spell in which both his production and playing time underwent a significant drop.
From Nov. 30 to Feb. 28, a span of 26 games, Connolly recorded just one point, while logging over 10 minutes of action just six times. Lightning management even considered sending the young forward back to his junior team, the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League, to ensure he received more playing time, but ultimately decided his overall game would benefit more by being exposed to NHL talent.
“We wanted to do what’s best for Brett Connolly
in the long run,” Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman said. “To send him to juniors or to keep him here, they were both good scenarios. But [as a result of trades and injuries] we’re thinner up front and we feel that for him to play the remainder of the season in the NHL as a regular will be a positive for him.”
In recent games, the Bolts rookie hasn’t ceased to create scoring opportunities around the net or set up his linemates for goals. That’s no surprise coming from a forward who is known more for his offensive skills set, but in contrast, has also registered an even rating or higher in five of his past seven games.
Connolly’s turnaround has been the result of feeling confident in taking on more responsibilities, not to mention being more aware in his own defensive zone and moving better without the puck. That Connolly will remain a mainstay in the lineup throughout the remainder of the regular season, and potentially through the playoffs, can only bode well for both himself and the team.
Connolly continues to develop defensive skills on path to becoming an overall better player.
“He’s responded really well to all the adversity,” said Bolts Assistant Coach Dan Lacroix, whose focus is primarily on the defensive unit. “The entire season has been a work in progress for him, who has always been a go-to guy with the puck and is counted on to score goals. But his play on both sides of the equation has really picked up and I think that’s helped round out his overall game and build some confidence. With Brett or any other player, when you feel good, you go out and play good.”
Lacroix also added that Connolly’s up-and-down play is typical of all young players who enter into the league with little to no NHL experience. In fact, similar episodes were even seen early on in the careers of Steven Stamkos
and Boston Bruins forward Tyler Seguin, both of whom sat out during their rookie seasons for the purpose of learning through observation from high above ice level in the press box.
While that pair, in particular, seemed to have worked out just fine, Connolly’s recent play as of late indicates that he too is on pace for similar success in the near future.
“It all comes down to being professional,” Connolly added.
“Coming in as a young kid, you really have no idea what this league is all about. So, it’s been a big wake-up call, but right now I’m glad to see my game improving and I’m just looking forward to getting better and helping this team win.”