Connolly rediscovers game, revitalizes career with Capitals

February 8, 2017
FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2017, file photo, Washington Capitals right wing Brett Connolly (10) celebrates after scoring against the Chicago Blackhawks during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Washington. Once a highly-touted top-10 draft pick who didn't live up to expectations, Connolly has revitalized his career after signing at a bargain-basement price with the Capitals. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — 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-year-old 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 league-leading 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 8League 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.

“He’s a very good hockey player,” Trotz said. “In the right situation and also the right timeframe — his timeframe, not everybody else’s timeframe — he can be a real good hockey player. I think that’s what you’re seeing in the maturity of a Brett Connolly, the confidence that he’s starting to gain with us and he’s been a real good contributor for us.”

That recaptured confidence came from playing and the instant chemistry that developed between Connolly, Eller and Burakovsky. Connolly said he has never felt more comfortable with any linemates and sensed something click right away playing with skilled linemates.

But he also made the arrangement work.

Connolly is a “big winger with good skating ability, just has a good hockey sense,” Eller said. “He’s got a good sense and he can pass, he can shoot. He holds onto the puck well. He’s got good poise. He’s got really good poise.”

That poise on the ice was always there, but the patience needed to endure criticism and not give up on hockey came over time for Connolly, who is proving to be one of the best values in the league.

“I’m definitely getting an opportunity now and taking advantage of it,” Connolly said. “It’s just a matter of sticking with it. It can be hard sometimes. You’ve got to have thick skin to play this game. I’m happy I stuck with it. To be doing as well as I am now, I want to keep going.”