Top 25 Under 25: #7 Brett Connolly

Scott Iskowitz

A torrid preseason wasn't enough to overcome the "Kid Line" as Brett Connolly surprisingly started off the year with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL.

Keep in mind when you read this that we voted ... a while ago.

So don't get all up in arms when you realize that Jonathan Drouin was ranked number 8 and Brett Connolly, who has struggled mightily following a terrific preseason, comes into our countdown at number 7.

That's one of the pitfalls of voting for this in the summer; the players have so much time to grow and develop, to exceed your expectations or to underwhelm you after showing flashes of "putting it all together".

Here's how the panel ranked Connolly, the 6th overall pick in 2010:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Clark Brooks Clare Austin Patti McDonald Mike Gallimore
7 8 8 8 7 6

Again, before everyone jumps on me (us) for putting a player with 1 goal, 12 shots and a -5 rating in 11 NHL games and just 10 points in 18 AHL contests close to the top 5 and ahead of some more notable names with better starts, let's not forget just how good Brett Connolly looked after six preseason contests with the big club in September.

Let's see what Mike Gallimore, who ranked Connolly 6th on his list, had to say back then:

I'm most impressed with Brett Connolly who, at 21 years old, looks leaps and bounds ahead of where he was two years ago. Once a gifted perimeter player battling habits formed by years as the go-to guy on his juniors squad, his progression as a professional, in terms of his physique and on-ice both as a defender and attacker, is quite evident and he's put on quite a show in camp and in the preseason matches he's played. He's been fun to watch and no doubt has made a very strong case for himself sticking around past the final cuts.

Mike wasn't the only one fawning over Connolly, as Chad Schnarr, grand poobah of Bolt Prospects, was all aboard at adulation station:

It's hard to ignore what Brett Connolly has done on the scoresheet this preseason - both in camp scrimmages and games. What may be more impressive, however, is his demeanor while doing so. Connolly is the poster child for good and not-so-good development styles. The Lightning had little choice but to keep him with the big club after the draft because of the situation he faced going back to his junior team, Prince George. A trade from the Cougars really wasn't much of an option either as Connolly was the team captain and was a native of Prince George. No marketing department would jettison their greatest draw. After spending a year with Jon Cooper and Rob Zettler in the AHL last year, Connolly is a completely different person - not to mention player. He has a healthy air of confidence and professionalism about him. His maturity is as impressive as his goals.

Mike Stuart of HockeyBuzz echoed the above sentiments:

Simply put, he [Connolly] looks poised and ready for fulltime duty with the Lightning this year. If he can continue to play well at both ends of the ice for the remainder of the preseason, it will be incredibly hard for the Lightning's coaching staff to leave him off the opening night roster. He's been that good.

And so did our fearless leader, John Fontana:

It's still only preseason, it's only exhibition play and the games should get tougher now that roster cuts have happened league-wide, but Brett's play so far has been a statement of his intentions to be a member of the team on opening night.

That's four out of the five bloggers that make up the Tampa Bay Lightning "Blogger's Roundtable" who -- independently of each other -- selected Brett Connolly as the player that impressed them most at training camp. And they weren't making anything up. He really was that good. He was scoring like a top-5 pick, playing 200-feet like Jon Cooper demands, and looking every bit like the bluechip stud winger he was always supposed to be.

So the question is, what the hell happened?

In short, GM Steve Yzerman decided to keep the "Kid Line" (neé "Top Gun Line") together to start the season, which meant Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Richard Panik were all in while Brett Connolly was the odd man out -- through no fault of his own. The other three players had spent the 2010-2011 season together in the AHL, while Brett Connolly was stuck in 19-year old prospect purgatory, too good for junior hockey but not quite ready for the NHL game. He was sent down as a victim of circumstance, a player who did everything he was asked but still got cut because of something over which he had zero control:

But Connolly was terribly disappointed that a strong camp after a 31-goal season for Syracuse wasn't enough.

"It's tough," he said. "For me, I've never been cut like that before, where you think you're going to make it and it kind of comes out of leftfield. It stings a little more that way, but there's nothing I can do but keep moving forward. I have no doubt in my mind I'll be back, and sooner rather than later."

"He had a great camp," general manager Steve Yzerman said. "If our situation changes, whether through injury or poor performance, then he's a phone call away. He's going to get his chance, and he's going to be a very good player for us."

What sabotaged Connolly, 21, was the line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik, promoted from Syracuse as a unit after it had five goals and 10 points in four preseason games. It will be Tampa Bay's third line. With the top two lines also set, Connolly would have been limited to fourth-line minutes.

"I don't want Brett playing on the fourth line. I want him playing a lot of minutes," Yzerman said. "He's got to go (to Syracuse) and be our top guy, be a leader and carry the team, if need be. That's another step for him. There's no plan to leave him there for any period of time."

Understand now that Brett Connolly is a professional athlete capable of understanding the business of hockey and how business is often unfair. He has to respect the decision made by management and get back to the form that nearly forced him onto the NHL roster. But he's also a human being, one who thought he did exactly what was asked and required to get a chance again on the NHL roster, so is it wrong to perhaps attribute some of his struggles this year to what happened back in September.

He's already been back up with the Lightning and sent back down after failing in an audition as a "2nd line center" when Steven Stamkos went down with injury. But in reality, he was still playing bottom-6 minutes and on the "2nd line" in name only, as other forwards rotated on the ice in his place.

With J.T. Brown and Nikita Kucherov, another pair of former AHL linemates, now clicking in the NHL, it may be some time before Connolly gets another proper look as a top-6 winger with the Lightning. Until then, speculation about his value in a potential trade will continue, especially with the glut of young forwards coming up through the system in the past 18 months.

The real question becomes, "Is Brett Connolly a bust?", and you're not a fool for thinking it, or even asking it aloud. But the answer, for now, is a resounding no. Don't be spoiled by the accelerated development of college prospects like Alex Killorn or Andrej Sustr, and don't assume that every talented young forward has two other talented young forwards with which he gets to build instance on-and-off-ice chemistry. Not all development paths are the same, and some development curves even (gasp) regress or move downwards before getting back on track. It doesn't necessarily mean that Brett Connolly is a bust -- at least not yet.

In any event, Connolly is too talented to languish in the AHL forever; eventually, that preseason form will almost certainly become his everyday game. Whether that's on right wing with Steven Stamkos, or Valterri Filppula, or another Lightning center -- or with a different team -- is what remains to be seen.

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