Friday, June 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Two former Lightning pieces playing key roles in Stanley Cup final

If you're a Lightning fan and you watched Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final between the Capitals and Golden Knights, three things stood out.

First off, Caps goalie Braden Holtby waited one game too long to look like a piece of Swiss cheese. Holtby shut out the Lightning in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference final. Then he turned back into a sieve Monday night, giving up some softies in Vegas' 6-4 victory. A message from Lightning fans to Holtby: "Thanks a lot … clown.''

The other two things that stood out weren't so much things, but people.

Two former Lightning pieces are playing key roles in this final, and you might be wondering how come they still don't play for the Lightning.

One is Caps forward Brett Connolly and the other is Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault.

Tampa Bay shouldn't regret the loss of either, but their journeys to their current teams and this Stanley Cup final are worth reviewing.

Connolly was supposed to be a star in Tampa Bay. The Lightning selected him sixth overall in the 2010 draft. He was in the NHL by age 19. Looking back, he wasn't ready.

"I was a young kid who … never thought I would make the team out of training camp,'' Connolly told the Prince George Citizen. "I had a lot to learn away from the rink and at the rink, just a lot of maturity that I had to find.''

He never really did find it with Tampa Bay. He had some moments, some flashes when he looked like a first-round pick. But, mostly, he struggled.

"I had to work at the defensive side of the game, and that's where I struggled,'' Connolly said. "When I was playing in Prince George, I didn't play a whole lot of defense; it was all offense. I was a young kid who excelled in the Western Hockey League, and you go to the NHL and you need to play all over the ice and be good in all areas unless you're scoring 50 goals a year, which I wasn't."

The Lightning liked Connolly. Lightning coach Jon Cooper said just last week that he always had a "soft spot'' for Connolly. They're both from Prince George, British Columbia. But, ultimately, it just didn't work out.

After scoring 18 goals and 14 assists in 134 games, Connolly was shipped to Boston in March of 2015 for a couple of second-round picks. Around here, his trade was met with shrugged shoulders. It was chalked up to a draft pick that just never panned out.

You can't say the Lightning made a mistake. It went on to reach the Stanley Cup final without Connolly, who never really made an impact in Boston, either. So he moved on to Washington as a free agent and has now posted back-to-back 15-goal seasons. He scored a goal in Game 1 of the final.

"I've just been able to come in here and just play,'' Connolly told the Citizen. "There's no pressure on me to be a go-to guy. I just go out there and play and chip in and be part of it and I've found that's helped me gain confidence in my game. I've played on a line with a lot of these guys, and I'm very happy with the way my career has gone in the last couple years. It's been a big turnaround for me, and it hasn't been easy."

Meantime, Marchessault's trip to the NHL's version of a miracle on ice is a bit more complicated. Never drafted, the 5-foot-9 forward got to the NHL the hard way. He signed a contract to play minor-league hockey and ended up signing a free-agent deal with the Blue Jackets. He played only two games with the Blue Jackets, spending the rest of the time in the minors.

When he was a part of one of those deadline trade deals involving a bunch of guys you never heard of. You know, these young prospects for those young prospects.

It changed Marchessault's career. He ended up playing 45 games for the Lightning in 2015-16, scoring seven goals. He showed enough that the Lightning did want to re-sign him when he became a free agent and offered him about the same deal the Panthers did: two years for $1.5-million. But the Panthers offered him something the Lightning could not: more playing time.

So that's how he went to Florida, where he broke out with 30 goals last season.

Again, the Lightning can't really regret how Marchessault got away. The Panthers can. They left him unprotected in the NHL expansion draft. What a gaff. But their trash was Vegas' treasure. The Golden Knights jumped all over him and he made Vegas look brilliant, scoring 27 goals with 48 assists to finish second on the team with 75 points. He is Vegas' top playoff scorer with 19 points.

He, too, was noticed in Game 1 when he was flattened on a borderline dirty hit by Washington's Tom Wilson. But he got up and finished the game.

In the end, no, the Lightning shouldn't feel bad about Connolly and Marchessault playing in the Stanley Cup final.

Then again, the Lightning isn't, and it certainly feels bad about that.

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