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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The Redskins gave up 40 points and more than 400 yards in a loss to the Giants last Sunday, and that was without Odell Beckham suited up for New York.
The Redskins have lost four straight games, and five of six, while giving up more than 30 points three times.
The Redskins surrendered more than 200 rushing yards to the Giants, and have not held an opponent under 100 yards rushing in their last six games.
You get the idea.
After the Washington defense got out to an impressive start to the season, things have fallen apart down the stretch.
Despite the struggles, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden has no intention of shaking up his coaching staff.
"No. Not really," Gruden said on the Redskins Talk podcast when asked about any coaching changes.
As the Redskins struggle and lose their grip on a playoff spot, it's not unheard of to think some staff changes might be coming. The Panthers fired two defensive assistants last weekend, and as the NFL season approaches the finish line, more coaches will lose their jobs.
In Washington though, it seems the staff is safe. Still, the Giants loss stings.
The Redskins' offense has been decimated by injuries, particularly at quarterback and along the offensive line. There was some leeway for a loss to New York, but not when the home team got down 40-0 to a 4-8 Giants team.
That type of deficit brings questions. Questions about the coaches, questions about effort.
On Sunday, Gruden made clear he understands his future is week to week.
"We have a game to win next week in Jacksonville," the coach said. "We have to go about trying to find a way to do it."
On Monday, he made clear his assistants are safe. As far as he is concerned anyway.
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