Capitals’ Brett Connolly knows ups, downs of top prospect’s NHL journey

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WASHINGTON — Brett Connolly remembers the experience fondly, eight years later. In 2010, he was one of the top NHL prospects who got the chance to attend the Stanley Cup Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. 

Fresh faced out of Prince George of the WHL, Connolly was an 18-year-old kid getting to meet some of the league’s top players like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Chris Pronger and Jeff Carter. On Monday, he was on the other side getting to meet the top prospects of the 2018 NHL Draft class in Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk, Noah Dobson, Evan Bouchard, Quintin Hughes and Filip Zadina.

“It’s amazing. Time goes so fast,” Connolly said.

Those seven prospects will likely be going somewhere in the top 10 later this month in Dallas, just like Connolly, who was chosen sixth overall pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning. And from his NHL experience he knows that just because you’re selected high nothing is guaranteed.

After spending one more year with the Cougars, Connolly played 68 games for the Lightning in 2011-12, recording 15 points. Most of the next two seasons saw him refining his game in the AHL with general manager Steve Yzerman preferring he play bigger minutes and not be stuck on the NHL club’s fourth line. The emergence of other young players ahead of him led to a 2015 trade deadline deal that sent him to the Bruins. Two seasons in Boston ended with him failing to make a lasting impression. He entered the free agent market and was signed by the Washington Capitals in 2016 where he’s finally found a comfort zone.

Through his experience, Connolly has gained plenty of wisdom to impart on the next class of prospects.

“For me, when you do get picked, it really doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’ve still got to earn your ice time. You’ve got to be better than the people that are drafted below you. It’s just the start. There’s so much hard work to be done. There’s going to be tough times for all those guys. It’s just a matter of sticking with it and being positive and believe in yourself when times are tough. I’m sure all those guys are good enough players to figure it out. We’ll see those guys in the league soon.”

Having gone through their junior seasons, the NHL Combine and this brief media tour during the Cup Final, the prospects still have a little more than two weeks until draft night.

“A little anxious now for the draft. You have your meetings with teams, you kind of want to know where you’re going,” said defenseman Noah Dobson (NHL Central Scouting No. 5 ranked North American skater), who won the Memorial Cup with the QMJHL’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan this season. “At the end of the day it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, so you’ve just got to sit back and enjoy it with your family and soak it all in.”

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet. I think it will once I get on the plane to go to Dallas,” said defenseman Evan Bouchard (NHL Central Scouting No. 4 ranked North American skater), who’s gotten plenty of advice from London Knights teammates Robert Thomas (St. Louis) and Alex Formenton (Ottawa), who have been through the process. “I’m just trying to enjoy this experience now.”

Those who have come before them, like Connolly, felt the pressure to succeed being such a high pick. You’re being selected by teams that are hoping to have their fortunes turned around, and some of those hopes are tied to how you succeed — or fail. It comes with the territory. But such is the experience of a top prospect.

“You’re so young. It took me a couple of years to figure out how to be a professional and all that,” said Connolly. “That was the biggest thing for me, just sticking with it and finding a role on a team. There’s definitely pressure, it’s just how you handle it and channel it into a positive. Those guys I’m sure have been dealing with it all year. There’s a lot of pressure all year in your draft year and that’s kind of the start of it, especially for the high picks, those 1-2-3 guys, it’s a lot of pressure. 

“The league is changing so much, the young guys are so talented.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.