Hockey is easy again
Connolly rediscovers game, revitalizes career with Capitals
Hockey is easy again for Brett Connolly.
Once a blue chip prospect, it looked awfully difficult for Connolly during his first four NHL seasons. He couldn’t produce like he did in junior ranks or the minors, was traded and hit bottom when the Boston Bruins decided not to extend a qualifying offer last summer. That move allowed him to become a free agent.
The Washington Capitals expressed interest in Connolly right away and signed him to a bargain-basement $850,000, one-year deal on the first day of free agency. That looks like a steal now with Connolly on the verge of tying his career high in goals and on pace to shatter his career high in points.
“This game is all about confidence,” Connolly said Wednesday. “When you’re confident, you’re a completely different player and when you don’t you’re not a good player. It’s just a matter of finding that.”
It’s safe to say Connolly found it. Linemates Lars Eller, another newcomer, and Andre Burakovsky have been Connolly’s compass on his journey to being a productive NHL player this season. After being healthy-scratched 14 times in the first half of the season, the 24-yearold has become a mainstay in Washington’s lineup and has six points in his past four games.
Shaking off the frustration that mounted during unsuccessful stints with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Bruins, along with the signer’s remorse that came with sitting so much early this season, Connolly finally looks like the player who was the sixth overall pick in 2010 and considered a future star. “There’s a lot of pressure on guys when they go top five, six overall,” said teammate and friend Tom Wilson, who works out with Connolly during the summer in Toronto and was also a first-round pick. “They come into the NHL, they’re expected to produce. He had some tough times early on in his career, a little adversity, moved a couple times and it’s awesome to see him kind of come in here and find his stride.”
Connolly has 11 goals and five assists in 40 games, so he’s not overshadowing Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom, but the Campbell River, British Columbia, native is part of the leagueleading Capitals’ elite scoring depth. He fit into an established core right away, didn’t complain about not playing and is being rewarded for the patience that was lacking earlier in his career.
Scoring too much in his first NHL camp for the Lightning to send him back to the Western Hockey League, Connolly concedes now he might not have been ready for that pressure at age 19. He did fine in the American Hockey League but never found his scoring touch in Tampa, and Capitals coach Barry Trotz believes Connolly was given “too much too early” and was unfairly labeled a bust before he was given a chance.
In this October 2016 file photo, Washington Capitals’ Brett Connolly shoots during a preseason NHL game against the New York Islanders in Bridgeport, Conn.