19 October 2011
When Brett Connolly skates his 7th game tomorrow, the Lightning will only have two games left to decide if they want to keep him up for the year or send him back to the WHL. It's a tough decision for the team because he's looked good in the six games he's played even if the team as a whole has not.
Connolly came into camp looking to make the team. He was confident and when speaking to the press said just that. He came in after having spent a summer in Toronto putting on 10lbs in weight and coming in with a determined attitude. He has not just looked good playing with the Lightning so far, it's how he doesn't look out of place. Sure there are moments where he makes a mistake or his timing with Stamkos and St. Louis is a little off, but that just takes time to adapt to the faster pace and to develop the chemistry with his linemates.
He started on the 3rd line in the first few games of the season with an occasional shift up on the top line, but lately Boucher has been testing his skills with having him skate with St. Louis and Stamkos. He still has only 1 assist but I think it is just be a matter for time for the points to come when you are skating with those two.
If we look at the benefits of him being up with the club, it's obvious that his skill set will improve being up with the Lightning instead of being back in the WHL with the Cougars. No matter which line he'll play on, he's going to learn more than he can down in the WHL.
The question the coaching staff will address will be if he'll be able to take the 82 game grind of the regular season grind. The NHL has a long season and for a player that didn't play much in the 2009-2010 season due to injury, this will be a tough year physically for him. Add on the pressure of having to score consistently when you are playing on a top line with Stamkos and St. Louis, now you have a mental pressure added to the rookie's first year. Then add in the fact that if he skates on the top line, he'll be facing the top defencemen of the league night after night. And let's be truthful, having Chara try to shut you down, that's scary. That's assuming he'll skate on the top line of course, though, again, he didn't look out of place doing it so far doing it.
From a team standpoint, the Lightning can also use a player like Connolly to round out the top line instead of a player like Downie. Although I have to admit that Downie has far surpassed my expectations playing on a top line, Connolly could be a better fit than Downie right? He sees the play better and is quicker than Downie, allowing for the top line to be more fluid. But again, I'm not here to trash Downie as I'm sure he'll be back on the top line if Connolly doesn't stick with the team. It's just that I've liked the look of the line with Connolly on it.
The decision on keeping him won't be if the Lightning want to burn through Connolly's first year of his three-year $2.7 million contract, it will come down to if they think he can take all the pressures of playing at such a high level each night with the team. He's going to be an impact player eventually, and his skillset is something the team can use this year, but the question we'll see answered by post-game next Tuesday is whether the management has the confidence in him being able to survive a full season.
Oh, and scoring a goal or two in the next few games will help that decision too.