Each week, Lightning bloggers from across the web will meet at TampaBayLightning.com to discuss a hot topic around the team.
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Last season, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat were breakout players for the Bolts. Who's your candidate for breakout player this season?
The easy and obvious answer is super prospect Jonathan Drouin, who is poised to win a spot in the top-6 with the Lightning and compete for the Calder Trophy.
That said, my own viewings of him are limited, and while the numbers are all good, he will be adjusting on the fly to the pace and rigor of the professional game and schedule.
For that reason, I'll opt for Nikita Kucherov as my breakout player for 2014-15. We saw flashes of his ability last year; he seemed to find himself alone on a breakaway every other game and was almost always buzzing around the net. He finished the year with just 9 goals and 9 assists in 52 games, but with the caveat that most of his time was spent with defensive specialist Nate Thompson in the bottom-6.
After proving he can handle the NHL, he's earned a look as a top-9 (perhaps even top-6 forward) with a more offensively-inclined center, and if he gets increased 5v5 minutes and more offensive usage, he'll score in bunches: only Steven Stamkos produced scoring chances at a better rate last year than Kucherov, who ultimately failed to record a gaudy point total mostly due to some bad finishing luck. The Lightning shot just 5.54% at 5v5 last year with Kucherov on the ice, which was well below league average and 7th worst on the Lightning.
He's got the speed and the talent to be a 70 point player -- it might not happen this year, but if everything breaks right, it absolutely could, which is why I have Nikita Kucherov as my breakout candidate for this season.
Lightning fans and the NHL in general is squared in on Jonathan Drouin, but the player I am focused on is 2010 first-round draft pick Brett Connolly. Connolly had what was looked at as the best preseason of all the players at camp last year and failed to make the club (in part because of the “Top Gun”/”Kid” line of Johnson, Palat and Richard Panik making the squad).
Brett did see playing time in the NHL last season, but he was out of position and out of role most of the time, playing center or on the 4th line, that only led to a single point (a goal) in his 11 games with the Lightning. Meanwhile, in Syracuse, he put together a solid 57 point season (21 goals, 36 assists in 66 games) which was a follow up to a solid 63 point season the year before (31 goals, 32 assists in 71 games during 2012-13).
Brett needs to earn his roster spot, but the lack of depth in the organization at right wing helps his cause a bit, as does his lack of waiver-exempt options. Connolly was also training at Gary Roberts summer training camp (the one captain Steven Stamkos is known to participate in), he should be in excellent shape come the season. He’ll have a prime opportunity with the club, and I expect him to seize it.
My candidate for the Bolts’ next break out player is Brett Connolly. He had a prolific season in the AHL that it’s impossible to ignore. He also comes with a pretty sizable caveat, but we’ll get to that.
It seems a odd that we’re still waiting for Connolly to make a splash in the NHL. He made his debut in 2011-12 and registered 15 points in 68 games for the Lightning. A large amount of that time was spent on the 4th line or out of position. His development regressed and he’s seen just 15 NHL games since then. The bulk of those appearances came following Steven Stamkos’ injury last season and it wasn’t pretty.
Connolly had a very good training camp and preseason in 2013, so it was surprising when he didn’t make the main roster. To his credit, Connolly has been a prolific producer in Syracuse. He had 31 goals and 63 points in 71 games in ’12-’13 and 21 goals and 56 points through 77 games in ’13-’14. He also recorded over 200 SOG.
The big question with Connolly is if he makes the team. Despite several departures, there aren’t that many spots available. He’s only 22 and clearly has the offensive skills to contribute on the 3rd or 4th lines. He’ll also be playing with the best teammates he’s ever had. If Connolly can crack the roster out of camp he has a very good chance of making a big impact.
Is anyone surprised that I’m going to pick Brett Connolly as my breakout player for 2014-15? I’ve been picking Connolly to be a breakout player since he was drafted.
After playing some great hockey during last year’s preseason, Connolly looked like a player who was ready to contribute at the NHL level. Even so, the team elected to send him back to the Syracuse Crunch for a touch more seasoning. Down there, he didn’t disappoint. This is a player who put up 57 points in 66 games as one of the offensive leaders on his team.
What makes this decision to name Connolly a potential breakout player easiest, though, is the fact that his points-per-game rate in the AHL is similar to those of the Lightning's two Calder nominees from last year. Over the course of his two years in the American League, Connolly has put up approximately 0.88 points per game. That’s right in the zone with Johnson and Palat.
With a guy like Teddy Purcell gone, there’s a huge opening for Connolly to make an impact with the Lightning; Steve Yzerman hinted at this earlier in the summer. If Connolly can come into camp this year and do exactly what he did last year, I like his chances to not only make the big club, but to contribute with the big club too. People are quick to forget that this player is only 22 years old. There’s still plenty of time for him to make his mark.
I think we're going to see great things from J.T. Brown this year, based on the fact that we were so close to seeing them last year. So many times I thought he was going to score the goal that would open a flood gate. For whatever various reasons, he just wasn't able to apply that last little bit of touch needed and the pucks didn't find their way into the net. I believe the law of averages will even out this year and his talent and hard work will pay off in dividends for the Lightning.