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Tampa Bay Lightning rookie Brett Connolly gets one more chance to impress before decision time



It is down to one last game for Tampa Bay Lightning rookie Brett Connolly. The right wing plays in his ninth game tonight against the Sabres at HSBC Arena. If he plays one more, the clock starts on his three-year, $2.7 million contract. The club's other alternative is to send him back to Prince George of the junior Western league.

As Lightning coach Guy Boucher said, it's a "very difficult" decision.

If it were only about on-ice performance, Connolly, 19, likely would remain with the Lightning. Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman even said last week he believes the team is better with Connolly in the lineup. That is saying something because Yzerman was as strong as anyone over the summer in saying he believed Connolly's place this season would be with Prince George. But there are many other factors such as the roster. If Connolly stays, there might come a time (like when defenseman Mattias Ohlund comes off injured reserve) when Tampa Bay will have to try and get a player through waivers to clear a roster. 

There also is the debate on what is best for Connolly. If he is going to continue developing, then the Lightning might be the best place for him. But if, say, by December, the rigors of the league have become too much and the is being scratched or playing reduced minutes, then clearly he would have been better dominating in juniors. But Prince George isn't a great team, which means it would put a lot of pressure on Connolly to provide offense and that means, perhaps, a regression on the more complete game needed to play in the NHL.

"Projections are always hard to do," Boucher said. "That’s why we are very cautious. We don’t want to be overwhelmed by the good things he does. We don't want to be too disappointed by the things he's got to learn. We've clearly stated it’s a difficult choice we have to make. He’ll be in the game (today) and the day after that, I guess it will be either the short or long knives."

Connolly knows the game. In fact, one of his strengths is that he goes to the right areas and he is not afraid to get to the net. Memorable moment in Saturday's win over the Sabres was when Marty St. Louis had the puck behind the Buffalo goal line and Connolly, open in the slot, was banging his stick on the ice, calling for the puck. That shows confidence. He also knows where to be defensively and has not been intimidated by the speed or physicality of the game.

Connolly also has created a good rapport with St. Louis and captain Vinny Lecavalier. He sits next to them on the bench and talks. He has a seat next to St. Louis in the HSBC Arena.

"We talk a lot," St. Louis said. "You want to make sure that you don’t give him too much. Maybe every day trying to work on a different thing. When I'm around young guys, and especially when I play with them, I like to help them in a way of what to expect; look for this, look for that. He’s been absorbing a lot. At the same time I like that’s it’s not a one-way diologue. I like him to have his own opinions too to debate things." 

About the only thing he has not done, with just two assists in eight games while playing a top-six role, is produced offensively. That is a concern, though had he just finished off a few plays in the past few games he probably would have had three goals.

Connolly said there is no chance he will try to do too much today and take himself out of his game as he tries to make a last statement.

"At the end of the day, I approach it the same way as any game," Connolly said. "At the end of the day just try to help the team as much as possible, and we'll find out tonight or tomorrow."

Added Boucher: "Every day we pile on the pluses and minuses for his future and our future. .. Up to now, he's done well."

Other stuff from the morning skate: As expected, Mathieu Garon gets his third straight start in net and the scratches remain forwards Ryan Shannon and Mattias Ritola and defenseman Bruno Gervais. ... Boucher called "awful" his team's ability to draw penalties this season, and only eight teams have had fewer than Tampa Bay's 27 power plays. The thing is, Boucher does not have an answer. He said it is nothing his players are doing wrong. "There's no clear solution to it," he said. He likes, though, that it has forced his team to be better five-on-five, and the team is tied for the league with 20 five-on-five goals. ... The team also second with 136 blocked shots. Boucher credits not so much players using their bodies but their sticks. "It looks like a small detail but it's the most important thing, defensively," he said. "First, it's the gap (between players), and then it's the gap with your stick to the other team's puck. You can still hit guys, but the puck still travels. So, it looks good, you head a pound, but the puck travels and it becomes a two-on-one or an opportunity at the net. So, for me it's always been stick on puck first, and once the stick on puck is established, then the body."

[Last modified: Thursday, November 24, 2011 12:28am]


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