NASHVILLE — It was difficult for Brett Connolly to describe exactly what had changed for him during Wednesday's practice.
The pace of the workout seemed quicker, the Lightning rookie said, the scrutiny from coach Guy Boucher harsher.
"I think for me being 19, they had let me off the hook a little," Connolly said. "It's not going to happen anymore."
That is because Connolly is officially in the NHL.
He played what essentially was a nine-game tryout, and rather than send him back to Prince George of the junior Western league — which would have delayed the start of his three-year, $2.7 million contract until next season — Tampa Bay determined Connolly's long-term development, and the team, were better served with him sticking with the big boys.
Connolly can still be sent back to Prince George, but with tonight's game against the Predators at Bridgestone Arena, he gets paid, and that turns what had been a nice little story about a player's unexpected rise in the ranks into one of increased expectations and required achievement.
"I told him (Wednesday)," Boucher said, " 'Congratulations. You've done the easy part. Now you're an NHL player. This is a performance league. It's not a development league. We make decisions in terms of performance; therefore, you have to be accountable like everybody else. You can't be just a new kid.' "
"You have to perform every night," Connolly said. "Even (Wednesday) in practice I could tell they were like, 'Okay, you've had your treatment like a 19-year-old.' They're going to treat you like a veteran. Obviously, Guy is going to be hard on me, so you have to adapt again."
Connolly, the No. 6 overall pick of the 2010 draft, has adapted well. Playing on a top-six line with center Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis, the right wing has two assists, is averaging 13:54 of ice time and entered Wednesday tied for the league lead among rookies at plus-5.
He skates well, puts himself in the right positions, gets to the net and is responsible defensively. He also is getting time on the power play.
"He deserves to be here," Lecavalier said.
Added general manager Steve Yzerman: "We're a better team with him in the lineup."
About the only thing Connolly, 6 feet 2, 181 pounds, hasn't done is score. But Boucher doesn't want him worrying about points.
"He's going to have points eventually, for sure, but when?" Boucher said. "That's why we don't want to put pressure on him. That's where I've seen failure before."
Boucher said he wants Connolly concentrating on getting to the net, back-checking, playing defense, things that make a complete player. The emphasis might have been different with struggling Prince George, which would have needed Connolly to produce points.
"This is the best place right now to continue his development to get better," Yzerman said.
Said Connolly: "I've accomplished everything I wanted going into the summer. I have to take it a step further to be a contributor and a good NHLer."