After all the pomp and circumstance of the Capitals’ banner raising to start the season was over, a hockey game still needed to be played. That night, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov took their familiar spots on the top line. On their right, was Caps forward Brett Connolly who had earned a chance to compete for that top spot during Tom Wilson’s suspension.
That night was a very early indication to Connolly that things were going to be different this season. Todd Reirden is not Barry Trotz.
Connolly first signed with Washington in 2016. A cast off of the Boston Bruins as they did not offer him a qualifying offer to retain his rights as a restricted free agent, Connolly needed a team to take a chance on him. The Caps did, signing him to a one-year deal worth $850,000. Connolly responded with 15 goals and 23 points for Washington, earning him a new two-year, $3 million contract to stick around.
Despite that, however, Connolly never seemed to gain the full trust of head coach Barry Trotz. Connolly averaged just 12:00 worth of ice time per game last season over 70 games.
“Obvioulsy the last couple years you'd like to play a little more, but I knew that with the way that he was coaching and the way Barry was handling me, that was going to be my role for that,” Connolly said. “I took pride it that last year, but this year's a little different.”
Though Connolly’s stay on the top line was brief, he is averaging over two minutes more of ice time per game than last season and it is clear Reirden envisioned him having an increased role.
“I liked how he came into camp,” Reirden said. “I think we had good discussions about a plan for him going into the year. There was room for growth still in his game and he's still a young player.”
“[Reirden] has been really good with me and making sure my minutes are a little higher,” Connolly said. “Obviously, you've still got to earn that, but he's put me in situations to succeed. It's been nice to deliver on that a little bit.”
In just 29 games this season, Connolly has five goals and 18 points. His 13 assists sit just three shy of his career high set in 2015-16 over the course of 71 games. He is currently on pace for a 50-point season which would shatter his previous career high of 27.
Increased playing time should naturally result in increased production, but Connolly has not been a passenger getting carried by better teammates. He has played all through the lineup and keeps producing regardless of the situation.
“There's a lot more trust in me to play in all situations and move up and down the lineup,” Connolly said. “I've played all over the lineup which is nice. It's nice to know that when you're playing well you can be moved up at any time. It's been a really positive change for me and I'm happy that I could deliver a little bit and play well when I am given those opportunities.”
In 2017, Connolly was a healthy scratch for six of the team’s seven playoff games. Trotz elected to go with seven defensemen in the lineup, something he had not done the entire season, rather than dress Connolly.
Reirden has taken a different approach this season and it is paying dividends both for the player and the team.
“He's been really important part of us getting through these injuries because we've used him on the power play in different areas as well,” Reirden said. “I think he's had a strong season and not surprised to see that his numbers are following along, but to me it started with his commitment this summer and then to start the year, the confidence he had and the kind of belief in using him in a different way than maybe he's been used in the past that he could generate some higher numbers.”
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