Sep 26, 2013; Estero, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Brett Connolly (14) skates with the puck against the Florida Panthers during the third period at Germain Arena. Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Florida Panthers 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Connolly: Make or Break Season

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In the NHL 2010 Draft, the Tampa Bay Lightning selected Brett Connolly as the 6th overall pick in the first round. Prior to being drafted by the Bolts, Brett Connolly had spent the previous two seasons in the Juniors with the Prince George Cougars of the WHL, where he amassed 79 points including 40 goals in 81 games.

After being drafted by Tampa, he played one more year with Prince George and tallied 73 points in only 59 games. Impressive stats to say the least.

Not only was Brett Connolly putting up these numbers on his Junior team but he was also a part of Canada’s Under 17 team in 2008 as well as the under 18 team in 2009.

Against international competition in his age groups, Brett Connolly put up 15 points in 16 games. Not too shabby.

In 2010 and 2011, Brett Connolly played for Canada’s Under 20 team and in 13 games, he scored 9 total points. There had been no question that this kid could put up points against the competition he was facing. He did it in the Juniors and he didn’t seem to miss a beat against the international teams he lined up against.

But the 2010-2011 NHL season saw the Tampa Bay Lightning in the hunt for the playoffs. If you recall, Guy Boucher was in his first year as coach for the Bolts. Steve Yzerman was the General Manager in his first season since being named in the off-season.

When Yzerman was hired, we all knew the cupboard was bare. There was not enough talent either in Tampa or in Norfolk, their AHL affiliate at the time. Brett Connolly was the very first draft pick in the Yzerman regime. To this day, I haven’t heard anyone second guess that pick.

What I have heard is, that since the talent was bare, especially in Norfolk, the Lightning were rushing Brett Connolly.  So, Connolly makes the final roster coming out of training camp.  To add to this, the Lightning were making a run towards the playoffs they hadn’t smelled in a few years.  Worse thing that could happen to Brett Connolly.  He certainly gave them speed they didn’t seem to have. He obviously gave them some youthful energy.

But the downside for Brett Connolly was that he didn’t appear ready. Although he is listed at 6’ 2”, his frame did not appear filled out yet and that hurt him.  He was playing against bigger and stronger men in the NHL. He was 19 years old with a little less than two years of Juniors under his belt. It showed. At times, Brett Connolly looked lost out on the NHL ice.  He definitely stopped scoring at the rate he once had.

That didn’t stop the Lightning from playing him in 68 games that year. But the kid who scored almost a point a game in the Juniors and in International play, scored just 15 points in those 68 games. Fortunately, for Connolly, he was selected for the Under 20 Canadian team for the second straight year and the Bolts allowed him to go play for Canada during the NHL season.

The following year, with a little more talent in the cupboards, the Lightning decided to have Brett Connolly play for their new AHL affiliate in Syracuse. Except for being called up to Tampa as an injury replacement for five games, Brett Connolly played almost the entire 2012-2013 season for the Syracuse Crunch. And guess what? His scoring touch returned. He put up 63 points in 71 games for Syracuse. Not only that, in the AHL playoffs, Connolly scored 11 points in 18 games.

Last season, despite having an outstanding training camp, he again played for Syracuse.  Brett Connolly scored 57 points in 66 games. The kid was regaining his teenage form. Good for him. He’s now 22 years old. He’s three seasons removed from the Lightning throwing him in the deep end of the pool as a fresh faced 19 year old.

As we approach training camp for the new season, there is no doubt this is a critical year for Brett Connolly. The organization did him no favors early in his career by bringing him up to the NHL before he was ready. To their credit, the team appeared to have righted that wrong by playing him almost exclusively at Syracuse for the last two years.

It is now back in his hands. He isn’t the 19 year old farm kid. He’s a 22 year old hockey player, who has had three years in the Juniors, two seasons in the AHL and about a season in the NHL. Not to mention the international games he has played. It’s time. It is time for Brett Connolly to begin showing that he belongs in the NHL for good. He began to show that last year in training camp. Many observers felt he had the best camp of anyone there. Including some of the young guys that ended up making the final roster.

It does not have to be a point a game for Brett Connolly. Contribute. Help the team during the course of the season win games. Be an integral cog in the Tampa Bay Lightning machine that is not only eyeing the playoffs but looking to make a long run in those playoffs.

This is a make or break year for young Mr. Brett Connolly. We have seen the flashes of his game. A lot will depend on the lines he is put on by Coach Jon Cooper. Regardless of that, he must consistently show that he was made for the NHL. Show us that when people say that the Tampa organization has some of the best young talent in the game today, that you must be included in that conversation. It is your year, Brett Connolly.

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