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Tampa Bay Lightning takes tougher approach in developing Brett Connolly

Brett Connolly has seen his ice time shrink and criticism of his defense grow since his return from the junior championship.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Brett Connolly has seen his ice time shrink and criticism of his defense grow since his return from the junior championship.

It didn't take long for rookie Brett Connolly, after he returned from the world junior championship, to realize things with the Lightning were going to be different.

His on-ice mistakes were now front and center during team video sessions.

"He let me off the hook a little bit at the start of the year," Connolly said of coach Guy Boucher. "But I found out when I got back that's not going to be the case anymore. It's a teaching tool. You've got to watch what you're doing on the ice."

Connolly has done less and less. He has no points in his past 14 games, and in eight games since winning a bronze medal with Canada at the world junior championship, the right wing has played more than 10 minutes only once, has nine shots and was demoted to a fourth line.

More to the point, Connolly, 19, has struggled defensively, which Boucher said is the primary reason for the loss of ice time.

But instead of sending Connolly back to juniors, Tampa Bay decided to continue his development in the NHL with what Boucher called "tough love."

"We said as a staff that if we're going to take him back after Team Canada, that he'd fit wherever he deserved to fit at that moment," Boucher said. "He's not a young kid anymore. He's part of the team and subject to the same positive or constructive criticism as the other guys who have been in the league for 10 years.

"We've taken a lot of time with him, probably more than any other guy. It's a question, now, of his willingness to focus on the small details to become a complete professional."

Quite a change from the feel-good story in which Connolly surprised even the Lightning by earning a job out of training camp, getting power-play time and playing on a line with Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis.

"With the puck he's fine," Boucher said of Connolly, who has four goals and eight points in 36 games. "But he's got to improve without the puck. He gets surprised defensively."

That is "normal for a 19-year-old," Boucher said, but added, "He has a lot to learn."

"Be hard on the walls," Connolly said. "Make sure you have your guy in the slot. Little things, little things that go a long way."

Steven Stamkos, who at 18 struggled through the first half of his rookie season, knows what his teammate is going through, so he offered perspective.

"It's a tough situation," Stamkos said. "You're used to being the go-to guy all the time, and you're used to playing all situations. … You know you have the capabilities, but sometimes you have to take a step back and realize you are at that age and it's a learning process and it's not going to happen overnight."

Stamkos' advice to Connolly?

"Just keep working hard," he said. "Try to keep that confidence that you have in your abilities. Sometimes it's tough when you're not playing a lot, but try to learn from the guys and just stay positive."

"It's a moment of opportunity," Connolly said Stamkos told him. "I have to take advantage of it."

Even if watching game video is not nearly as much fun.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@tampabay.com.

Tampa Bay Lightning takes tougher approach in developing Brett Connolly 01/22/12 [Last modified: Sunday, January 22, 2012 7:47pm]
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