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Best still to come for Brett Connolly: 'I'm just entering my prime'

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop /

Brett Connolly believes he's entering his prime.

The numbers back him up.

After signing with Washington as a free agent in the summer of 2016, the veteran winger went on to register three of the best seasons of his career, scoring 15 goals in 2016-17 and 2017-18 before reaching new career-highs in goals (22), points (46) and games played (81) in 2018-19.

The sixth-overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, the 27-year-old admits that although he "took a little while to find my way in the league," he's finally found his footing. And after signing a four-year contract with the Florida Panthers last week, he aims to continue that upward trajectory.

"I'm 27, so I'm just entering my prime, playing the best hockey of my career," said Connolly, who was one of four playoff-primed free agents the Panthers picked up on July 1. "I'm looking to take more steps, and I feel that I can. I thought this was the best opportunity for me to do that."

When searching for a new place to call home this offseason, Connolly said he was drawn to the Panthers for a number of reasons. From his time with the Capitals, he'd seen firsthand just how talented the team's core was, and the hiring of head coach Joel Quenneville was hard to ignore.

But it was a talk with Dale Tallon that ended up sealing the deal, as the organization's eloquent President of Hockey Operations & General Manager packaged everything into one strong pitch.

"Our conversation was so fluid and so comfortable," Connolly said. "With Q [Quenneville] coming in here and with the team that they already had, I thought it was a great opportunity to come here and keep building on what I've done the last three years, help a team win that's right there. Every year you see teams get in the playoffs. Once you're there, anything can happen."

If there's one thing Connolly knows, it's how to win on the game's biggest stage.

The 6-foot-3, 195-pound forward appeared in all 24 games with the Capitals during their run to the Cup in 2018, scoring six goals to go along with three assists. No point was bigger, however, than his primary assist on Lars Eller's game-winning, championship-clinching goal in Game 5.

Connolly is currently the only player on Florida's roster with a Stanley Cup ring.

"Honestly, it's like an addiction," said Connolly, who has appeared in 38 playoff games over the past three seasons. "It's just so fun. Different guys step up every night, which is the best part about it. You grow so close as a team. Q [Quenneville] has won before. Dale, everyone kind of talks about it, is the guy that started the Chicago team, put it together, put those pieces in place.

"I think, for all the guys that have already been here, they're doing their best to get in [to the playoffs] every year. You get in and anything can happen. You grow those friendships and bonds even closer. That's everyone's goal going forward. I'm just going to come here and keep doing what I've been doing, be a good teammate like I have been my whole career, help guys. We'll see what happens. It's an exciting time for me and the organization, for sure."

A versatile forward, Connolly projects to be a plug-and-play player with the Panthers that will be able to play with just about anyone. Especially lethal at even-strength play, 21 of his 22 goals last season came at 5-on-5 - an area the Panthers went into the summer looking to improve on.

Making the most out of his 13:50 of ice time per game, he ranked third on the Capitals with 1.27 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 during the 2018-19 season, according to

"He's one of those guys that can help us, give us a lot of opportunities," Quenneville said of Connolly. "He can play with a lot of guys up front. He's got some versatility. We're looking forward to seeing who's best suited for him. I think there's a lot of options in our lineup. When we're looking at putting lines together, he's a guy that gives us a lot of options and versatility."

Having gone up against the Panthers while suiting up for the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Capitals over his first eight seasons in the NHL, Connolly said he's excited to finally be play with the likes of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck.

"They're a big reason why I thought this was a good fit with me," Connolly said. "They're good players that I've played against in the past… It's good to be on their side now. I'm excited."

With training camp not coming up until September, Connolly said he plans to spend the next few months regaining some of the strength he lost during the playoff grind of the last three seasons.

If everything goes according to plan, he'll be in for another short summer next year.

"Just working on a few things and getting ready for a big season," Connolly said.

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