Lightning sets roster, sends Drouin to juniors, Connolly to AHL

Connolly stung to be sent to AHL but stays positive. Drouin returns to juniors.
Brett Connolly, right, had a “great camp,” GM Steve Yzerman says, but the success of the Johnson-Palat-Panik line hurt him. DIRK SHADD   |   Times
Brett Connolly, right, had a “great camp,” GM Steve Yzerman says, but the success of the Johnson-Palat-Panik line hurt him.DIRK SHADD | Times
Published September 29 2013
Updated September 30 2013

The Lightning on Sunday finalized its 23-player roster, though more notable than who made the team was who did not.

Among 10 players cut were forward Brett Connolly, one of the best players at training camp and who tied for the team lead with four preseason goals, and forward Jonathan Drouin, the No. 3 overall pick of the June draft.

Connolly was sent to AHL Syracuse, Drouin to Halifax of the junior Quebec league, where he must play the entire season. Drouin's demotion was not a surprise. Even he said he never quite acclimated to the speed of the NHL game in the preseason games. But Connolly was terribly disappointed that a strong camp after a 31-goal season for Syracuse wasn't enough.

"It's tough," he said. "For me, I've never been cut like that before, where you think you're going to make it and it kind of comes out of leftfield. It stings a little more that way, but there's nothing I can do but keep moving forward. I have no doubt in my mind I'll be back, and sooner rather than later."

"He had a great camp," general manager Steve Yzerman said. "If our situation changes, whether through injury or poor performance, then he's a phone call away. He's going to get his chance, and he's going to be a very good player for us."

What sabotaged Connolly, 21, was the line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik, promoted from Syracuse as a unit after it had five goals and 10 points in four preseason games. It will be Tampa Bay's third line. With the top two lines also set, Connolly would have been limited to fourth-line minutes.

"I don't want Brett playing on the fourth line. I want him playing a lot of minutes," Yzerman said. "He's got to go (to Syracuse) and be our top guy, be a leader and carry the team, if need be. That's another step for him. There's no plan to leave him there for any period of time."

As for Drouin, 18, who got better as camp progressed, Yzerman said it is a matter of rounding out his game, which would be much more difficult playing limited NHL minutes.

"We think he's an incredible talent, a very intelligent player, great hockey sense, great vision," Yzerman said. "Our biggest concern was ice time. Where is he going to play? Who is he going to play with? The way we're set up front, he's not going to get the minutes we want him to play, so it's best he goes back to junior."

The Lightning will keep two goaltenders, 13 forwards and eight defensemen.

The surprise on a blue line that, as expected, includes rookie Mark Barberio was the promotion of Andrej Sustr, 22, who signed in March out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha and played 26 regular-season and playoff games for Syracuse.

"He skated well, had good hockey sense, good skill," Yzerman said of the 6-foot-8, 225-pounder's training camp, "and he adapted well."

Still, it was the demotions of Connolly and Drouin that provided the conversational fodder.

What does it say about an organization when there is more chatter about who did not make the team than who did? "It's very disappointing for the players," Yzerman said. "But we're happy with the depth of talent that we have."

"It's no longer a matter of if they're going to play in the NHL, it's a matter of when," coach Jon Cooper said, "and the when could be in the very near future."

Sunday that was little consolation to Connolly.

"I'll be disappointed for the next few days, but you've got to put that behind you because it's only going to make things worse," he said. "I proved this camp that I belong. It's a matter of me going (to Syracuse), playing well and waiting for my opportunity."

WAIVER WIRE: Yzerman said there are "a couple of names we have interest in" but putting in a claim depends on "is he better than what we have?"