It came as a surprise when the Lightning’s training camp roster was released and one expected attendee was left off the list – Brett Connolly. Connolly went through some expected growing pains last season. After getting off to a hot start, the then-nineteen year-old went through a prolonged scoring slump, and failed to score another goal for the rest of the year. He has bounced back in the AHL this season, playing with the Syracuse Crunch, and has quickly become one of the team’s most valuable forwards. Many people (including this writer) believed that Connolly’s AHL success might present him with expanded NHL opportunities. And it will, no doubt – but maybe not be this year.
Lightning GM Steve Yzerman addressed the media on the subject yesterday.
“He’s played outstanding,” Yzerman said about Connolly’s AHL performance. “I, you know, had a chance to talk with him after the game last night. We are extremely pleased with his development.”
As should be Lightning fans. Connolly has been getting stronger as the AHL season goes on, and at the time of this writing is second in team scoring, behind only fellow Lightning hopeful Tyler Johnson. Connolly has, it seems, outperformed many of the players that have been invited to camp in his stead, but Yzerman made it clear that this decision had nothing to do with performance.
“We’re real happy with the amount of ice time he’s getting,” Yzerman said. “He’s scoring on a regular basis. So we felt at this time, for our needs in Tampa, with the role that he would play here, he’s better off playing there. He’s playing a lot of minutes in all situations and he’s getting better. So I’m very comfortable with where he is right now. I’m very pleased with his development. And he’s going to be a good player for us. I just think he needs to play and play a lot, and that’s what he’s going to do there.”
While at first glance this would appear to be a demotion for Connolly, it might actually be a positive sign about the team’s expectations for his future. In the NHL, Connolly would find himself mostly assigned to third and fourth line duties, while his natural instincts are that of a goal scorer. With the Crunch, he’ll have time to work on areas of the game he wouldn’t be able to with the Lightning (first and foremost, on the power play) against professional, if not elite, opposition.
It’s also worth noting that Yzerman comes out of the Detroit Red Wings organization, and the Red Wings are notorious for letting their players develop in the AHL and in Europe until they’re ready to step seamlessly into an NHL role. Yzerman, despite having begun his own career at eighteen, seems to have adopted that philosophy and brought it to Tampa Bay. The team has an abundance of talented twenty-something prospects developing in the AHL, as evidenced by last year’s Norfolk Admirals’ (then Tampa Bay’s affiliate) historic 28 game winning streak and championship season.
“I want them to play,” Yzerman said of his crop of prospects. “I don’t want them playing four or five minutes a game. I want them playing a lot and continuing to develop.” He added, about Connolly, “He’s developing into a key go-to guy on a very good team. He’s very well coached. He’s learning a lot. So I have nothing but positive things to say about him. We’re choosing to leave him there for the time being.”
Of course, the door is still open on Connolly playing with the Lightning this season, particularly if the team has the kind of injury problems it had last year.
“He’s not in jail,” Yzerman said. “I can bring him here any time I want. ”