Battle tested: Panthers forward Brett Connolly entering prime with knowledge and experience beyond his years
Just 27 years old, Connolly has skill and savvy of seasoned veteran
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – There is a lot of pressure that comes with being a first-round pick, regardless of the sport.
You're not old enough to drink (in most cases), but you can hold the hopes and dreams of millions of fans in your hands, or glove, or stick, or whatever.
When it comes to the NHL Draft, players generally still have a few teenage years left to live when their names are called.
That was the case for Florida Panthers forward Brett Connolly, who was just a couple of months removed from his 18th birthday when he was drafted sixth overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning back in 2010.
After the draft, Connolly spent one final year in the WHL before turning pro. It was quite a year.
Connolly logged 73 points, including 46 goals, after being named captain of the Prince George Cougars for the 2010-11 season.
He seemed more than ready to take his game to the highest level, and the following year he was on Tampa Bay's opening night roster.
It was a great story up until that point, but as is the case with most tales worth telling, it wasn't all sunshine and roses.
"I came into the league so young," Connolly said. "I probably could've used a little bit more seasoning, maybe in the American league (AHL) or in junior another year. I was up very early, and expected a lot at a young age, and just couldn't find my game at the NHL level right away."
After spending his entire rookie season with the Lightning, Connolly's next two years would be mostly spent in Syracuse, New York with Tampa Bay's AHL club.
To be fair, they were two spectacular years. In 137 games with the Crunch, Connolly put up 120 points (52-68-120) and played a key role when Syracuse came within two wins of the 2013 Calder Cup.
During those same two years, Connolly played just 16 games with the Lightning.
"You kind of lose your confidence level a little bit, as you're young," Connolly said. "Then I got traded to Boston."
That’s right. Connolly, now five years removed from being drafted sixth overall, and playing on an expiring, one-year, two-way, ‘show me’ deal he signed with Tampa after his entry-level contract expired, was shipped off to Boston at the 2015 Trade Deadline for a pair of second-round picks.
Considering the price tag, it's not surprising that the Bruins re-upped with Connolly during the offseason, but it was just another one-year deal.
From the start, things just didn't feel right.
"For whatever reason, I just didn't fit there," Connolly explained. "I went long stretches without producing, and you kind of find yourself on the outs, playing less minutes. And my role was changing there a lot."
Connolly played out his contract in Boston and went into the summer of 2016 in need of a fresh start.
Five years and three contracts into his NHL career, it was no secret that his next deal could very well be his last if it wasn't the right fit.
Thank goodness for Barry Trotz and the Washington Capitals.
With a little bit of confidence and some freedom to operate, Connolly finally began to loosen the grip on his stick a little.
Regaining some of that offensive touch, while rounding out his 200-foot game, Connolly ended his first year in D.C. with a career-high plus-20 rating and finished in the NHL's top ten in shooting percentage.
For the then-24-year-old, being entrusted with responsibilities on a Stanley Cup contending team was just what the doctor ordered.
"I went to Washington and I really, really, really found my game there," he said. "I got to just play and regain that scoring touch that I've had my whole life. I just lost it for a few years."
Connolly was rewarded with a two-year deal, and for the first time in a while, some comfort and stability.
"I had three good years there, and we won the Stanley Cup," he said. "For me, I think people kind of forget that I'm 27. I was 23-24 years old when all that stuff was happening, so I'm still young. I just had to find my way, and I did that."
GROWING AS A PLAYER
There is a saying that winning breeds confidence, so it's no surprise that both Connolly and the Capitals appeared at their best when the team embarked on a Stanley Cup winning run in 2017.
According to Connolly, any success he's having now is due to everything he's endured to this point.
Every obstacle overcome, every healthy scratch, every question about being a top pick, it had all come full circle.
Leaving the Caps wasn’t easy for Connolly, but the whole ‘being a free agent’ thing was a much more positive experience this time around. That is partly due to Connolly being a bit older and more battle scarred, and partly because he was starting to show the nose for the net that made him a top North American prospect a few years prior.
In signing with Florida, Connolly was making the conscious decision to team up with another Stanley Cup winning head coach.
It's a choice that is proving to be a wise one.
Connolly's career was already on the rise when he signed on the dotted line in Sunrise, and playing for Joel Quenneville, who has a reputation for getting the most out of many of his players, has Florida's new sharpshooting winger pacing for career highs in goals and points.
"I've enjoyed my time so far working with him," Connolly said of Q. "He's been great with me. He's really let me just play and have fun and play with confidence, and it's shown with my production offensively."
In very short order, the future Hall of Fame head coach and the wise beyond his years winger have found a common ground.
"He's done a good job of getting inside, getting to the front of the net, getting his shots through in some tight areas," Quenneville said. "He's got a deceptive shot. He can get it away in really tight areas."
Quenneville has given Connolly his blessing to do as he wishes on the ice, and Connolly has repaid Q by playing smart and responsible in all three zones while sniping big goal after big goal.
The unspoken bond, Connolly says, comes down to the two of them being part of a very exclusive club, one of which the members have only been granted access after working harder than they ever had in order to reach the highest mountain top there is to reach.
"I think there's a respect level between him and I, with winning," Connolly explained. "I was able to win one (Stanley Cup) in Washington, and he's obviously won a few, so there's a respect level there, that's obviously a little different."
Getting Quenneville to play favorites when speaking to the media is not something the veteran head coach is falling for.
He did, however, acknowledge the same message that Connolly conveyed; that there is a respect level among champions, to not only know what it takes to succeed at that level, but to have the ability to perform in those extraordinary moments.
"We've been privileged and fortunate to have the opportunity to win," Quenneville said. "We know how much fun it is, and how difficult the ride is, and the role is, to get it done. I think that's the appreciation there. To win four rounds, you need a lot of things to go right. He's been through those battles. We have lot of respect that way."
SETTLING IN SOUTH FLORIDA
Having time to relax and settle into their new home is a luxury that Connolly and his wife, Katrina, were not afforded.
That comes with the territory of moving into a tropical climate and having an extra bed or two to spare.
While Casa Connolly has been a busy place in recent weeks, it provided the young couple an opportunity to hang out with family and friends during what can be a whirlwind time of year for many professional athletes.
"My wife's happy," Connolly said, flashing a smile that reminded me of the old saying 'happy wife, happy life'.
"I've had my parents visit, she's had her parents down, our bothers; it's a great place to get away. Both our parents are from Canada, so once the winter rolls in, you can't escape it, so we definitely like to see them come down here and get away from winter and get some sun."
As Connolly continued to describe the plethora of visitors and activities he’d hosted during his short time in South Florida, he was also quick to point out a lesson he and his wife learned early on.
"It's so nice down here, you've almost got to tell people to stay away," Connolly said. "People want to come down here and stay a long time so you've got to set boundaries. A lot of people are going to want to come down here all the time, so you've got to stand firm on how many days you want visitors."
BEST FROM BOSTON
While Connolly describes his time in Boston as a bad fit "personality-wise", there is one big positive that came from his time with the Bruins.
Well, two actually.
Connolly's only full season in Boston, 2015-16, also happened to be the rookie years for a pair of fellow future Panthers; Noel Acciari and Frank Vatrano.
It's very possible that somewhere along the way during that season with the Bruins, the three relative youngsters discussed the prospect of signing multi-year deals and setting down in the same area. Well that's exactly what they did, minus changing the scenery from quaint suburban Boston to the beaches of sunny Fort Lauderdale.
“Me, Noel (Acciari) and Frankie (Vatrano) are living right next to each other,” Connolly said. “We all bought houses really close to each other, so we see each other a lot.”
It's an interesting threesome, when you think about it.
Sure, Acciari and Vatrano, the r-dropping New England boys, are easy to see in the same carpool.
But for Connolly, his brief stop in Boston is arguably the least significant of his career, or at least that's how it appears on the surface. After taking a closer look, a couple long lasting friendships begin coming into focus, bonds that were forged during that tumultuous time in Beantown.
"He's just a great guy to have around all the time," Vatrano said of Connolly. "Him coming here was great. I talked to him before he got to Florida. It's great to have him here. He's a huge part of our team."
Vatrano explained that it was exciting to hear that he and his old Bruins buddies would be reuniting in Florida. A recent new homeowner himself, Frankie was happy to share some real estate advice with the incoming Cats.
"When I found out they were coming here, I told them where I was living and that it'd be great to have them in the neighborhood," Vatrano said. "It's us three out in that area and it's great. We drive to the games and practices every day."
The trio, or tripod, or whatever you want to call them, aren't an exclusive group.
Most Panthers players live in the Fort Lauderdale area, and gatherings among teammates are a regular thing.
"There's a bunch of guys over by Las Olas that we spend time with, too," Connolly said. "It's a close team, everyone spends time with each other."
Many of the players will host dinners and gatherings at their homes. Not only does it provide them an opportunity to bond and relax away from the rink, but alternating homes is a nice way to allow each player, and his family, to show their own traits and traditions.
“I think we have a good variety of guys who have hosted different things, and that’s definitely what we need,” Connolly said. “We need guys to be together, and that makes it fun.”
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