When Brett Connolly was drafted sixth-overall in 2010 by the Tampa Bay Lightning, this is not how he envisioned his career would go.
Connolly was signed by the Capitals in the offseason, his third team in two years, to a one-year $850,000 deal after the Boston Bruins declined to offer him a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent.
With 25 points in 71 games last season, Boston’s decision took Connolly by surprise.
“I wasn't expecting to not get an offer,” he said, “But there's so many different factors in their decisions. With whatever it was, whether it was my [arbitration] rights or whatever, at the end of the day I feel like I'm going to get the same opportunity here if not better than I would have got in Boston this year.”
Will he have an opportunity to be on a successful team? Sure. But in terms of earning a significant role, Connolly took a gamble by signing with Washington.
With a roster already good enough to contend for a Stanley Cup, the Capitals had very few needs heading into the offseason. After acquiring Lars Eller late in June to plug the team’s need for a third line center, it would not have been surprising had the team decided to sit out free agency altogether. Instead, they signed Connolly in what looked like a true low-risk, high-reward move.
“When everything happened during the summer [the Capitals] were the team that called right away,” Connolly said. “... Obviously when you're a new player you have to kind of earn your ice time and I knew that. We'll take it day by day here and play whatever role [head coach Barry Trotz] wants me to play and try and see if I can recapture my touch.”
Thanks in large part to the emergence of rookie forward Zach Sanford, what exactly that role might be is hard to pin down. When asked, Trotz was complimentary of Connolly’s abilities but admitted he was not sure just where the 24-year-old wing would fit in.
“I think Brett's interesting,” he said. “I think he's going to fill a few roles for us. He can play both wings, I think he can play in some offensive situations for us. He hasn't killed penalties or anything but I think he's diligent enough and he's responsible enough where he can help us on the other side of the puck too as we get to know Brett a little bit more.
“His sample size is small especially for me not being here for training camp. I think we will try to carve out a real defined role for him. Right now, I probably don't have that, but as we go along forward I think he'll find that we'll try to carve out a defined role.”
For a forward looking to rekindle his scoring touch, playing on a loaded team in which he will not be guaranteed consistent ice time is a gamble, but for Connolly the allure of playing on a good team with so many talented players was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
“I think if you ask anybody, you want to be on a winning team,” Connolly said. “It really was a no-brainer.”
But that doesn’t mean Connolly’s just along for the ride.
Players in a contract year are not just playing for their team, they’re also playing for their next job. Connolly has failed to live up to the expectations that come with how high he was drafted. At only 24-years-old, he hopes he still has a long NHL career ahead of him, but he has a lot to prove to make sure that happens.
“It's all about opportunity,” he said. “It's one of those things where you're just looking to have a good year and really gain some confidence. I know I can play in this league, it's just a matter of putting it together consistently and that's kind of what I struggled with in the past. It's just about not taking nights off and being good every single night.
“I know what I need to do and it's just a matter of doing it.”
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