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Brett Connolly's a keeper but Tampa Bay Lightning's decision is deeper

FIRST COMES FAST: Pavel Kubina, right, being greeted by Tom Pyatt, left, and Teddy Purcell, celebrates his first goal of the season, which gives the Lightning a 1-0 lead in the first period.

DIRK SHADD | Times

FIRST COMES FAST: Pavel Kubina, right, being greeted by Tom Pyatt, left, and Teddy Purcell, celebrates his first goal of the season, which gives the Lightning a 1-0 lead in the first period.

TAMPA

If it was a one-question test, the Lightning would probably ace it.

Has 19-year-old Brett Connolly shown he is capable of playing in the NHL?

Yes is the simple answer. Heck yes and are-you-kidding-me would also be acceptable.

The problem is the questions do not end there. They get progressively more difficult and exponentially more important.

For instance, will his body hold up to an 82-game NHL season after playing 16 and 59 games in juniors the past two years?

Are you willing to subject one of your current players to waivers in order to keep him on the roster, which might be an issue when Mattias Ohlund is ready to return?

Is this season worth starting his entry-level NHL contract, which means he could be eligible for free agency at 26?

Do you risk messing with his confidence and overall development by expecting too much too soon?

Can you pass that test?

"He's making it real difficult on us," coach Guy Boucher said. "It's not going to be an easy decision either way."

Just to make it more difficult, the clock is ticking. Connolly's nine-game grace period in the NHL expires after Tuesday night's road game against Buffalo.

The Lightning will then have to decide whether to keep him on the roster or send him back to his junior team at Prince George. Keeping him means his three-year, $2.7 million contract kicks in and his free agency clock begins. Sending him back means he can't return until late March, unless the Lightning has multiple forwards on injured reserve.

Even if you strip away money questions and roster concerns, the question is still not an easy one. Because, basically, the Lightning must decide what is best for Connolly's future, and a nine-game trial is not enough time to make that call.

"What's the best thing for him in the long run? That's No. 1 in our minds," said general manager Steve Yzerman. "No. 2 is, are we a better team with him in the lineup? My opinion right now is we are a better team with him in the lineup.

"But I can make a valid argument both ways. I don't think there's any harm in sending him back, but if he's an NHL player, and he's ready, and he makes us better, then I want to put the best team on the ice. We're trying to win games and make the playoffs."

If that were the only consideration, then Connolly should stay.

He has not lit up the NHL — he has two assists and no goals while playing on some of the top lines — but Connolly's speed, skills and confidence are becoming more apparent.

Through the first two periods of Saturday night's 3-0 victory against the Sabres, he created numerous scoring opportunities for himself and his linemates, and finished with seven shots on goal. He has taken and given hits, and has even shown some prowess on the defensive end.

"The one thing is, he's getting better each game. He's looking more comfortable, being more assertive, just getting better," Yzerman said. "At the end of nine games, is he going to keep going this way or is there a bump in the road? It's a bit of an educated guess."

The ultimate question is not whether Connolly will be an asset in the 10th game of the season but whether he will still be getting the same ice time in the 40th game.

If he runs into a tough stretch, and his playing time is reduced to eight or nine minutes a game, then the Lightning will have made a big mistake keeping him in Tampa Bay.

Not only will he miss valuable playing time he could have gained in juniors, but you never know what that might do to a young player's psyche.

"Are you putting his confidence and self-esteem at stake," Boucher said. "And are we putting the team's well-being at stake, at the same time?"

Just to add some intrigue, Prince George is off to a 3-7-1 start and is averaging fewer goals than any team in the Western Hockey League. You have to wonder how much there is to be gained by playing against young opponents on a struggling team.

"I don't think it would hurt for him to go back," Yzerman said. "But if he's an NHL player and can keep up and is playing regularly and is able to be effective, it's better for him to be here."

Meanwhile, in the hallway in the Lightning locker room, someone has tacked an ad from ESPN Magazine on a bulletin board. It's a picture of the Geico caveman playing horseshoes, with Connolly's name written above it in an apparent nod to his furry chest.

Alongside the picture is a message of congratulations for making the magazine so quickly.

"They've been giving it to me pretty good," Connolly said. "It's been fun."

His teammates seem to think he's ready for the camaraderie of the NHL.

And I would tend to agree.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Brett Connolly's a keeper but Tampa Bay Lightning's decision is deeper 10/22/11 [Last modified: Sunday, October 23, 2011 12:29pm]
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