TAMPA — There's no question rookie wing Brett Connolly has impressed the Lightning in his first week in the NHL.
Connolly, the sixth overall pick in 2010, showed his guts while battling in Boston, and the 19-year-old earned a spot on the top line the past two games with Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis.
"He's surprised us," coach Guy Boucher said. "Opened eyes."
St. Louis said: "He's doing as good a job as a 19-year-old can do right now."
"He's getting his opportunity," Stamkos said. "And he's taking it."
Many Lightning fans will get their first look at Connolly during tonight's home opener against the Panthers. But the question is whether this three-game homestand will be the last they'll see of him this season, as he has a nine-game window before he either must go down to juniors or the clock starts on his three-year, $2.7 million contract.
The answer, Boucher says, is not clear-cut.
"Right now, we're just trying to make him adapt, and it's working, and hopefully the next games he makes it real hard for us," Boucher said. "Sometimes you feel you gain because you have a new toy and, yippee, everybody's happy. But I've seen it in some players in Montreal over the years, it wasn't the best thing to keep those guys. …
"If we're going to keep somebody, it's because he's ready, his contributions are solid and we're not going to take anything away from his game, and we're going to play him. … We're going to make sure we make the right decision for him and the organization."
Connolly, at 6 feet 2, 181 pounds, boasts an intriguing blend of size, speed and skill. He can skate with speedy stars such as St. Louis and Stamkos, while also being able to crash the net and make smart plays, which is why Boucher likes him on that line. But the debate is whether he can remain consistent and hold up physically over a full season, having only played 75 combined games over the past two years due to injuries.
It's a balancing act for Boucher, who sat Connolly the second half of the third period Saturday against Florida, not because he wasn't playing well, but because the coach didn't want to "expose him" in a tight game, choosing to put in more experienced, strong defensive players.
For now, Connolly is enjoying the ride, and he is plus-2 through five games. Stamkos said he can see him getting "more and more comfortable and confident each game," and "he's willing to learn."
"It's been great," Connolly said. "Obviously a 19-year-old kid playing in the NHL, it's a great honor, and I'm looking to keep impressing every day."
Boucher said Connolly impressed him the most during the 4-1 loss to Boston on Oct. 8, showing guts against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
"You're expecting him to be tired, coming out and maybe even being scared, because they were coming at us hard," Boucher said. "They were hitting everything that moved and he was charging right through."
Connolly said being the first on the puck like he was against the Bruins is "something I need to show the coaching staff and management to stay here for the full year."
Boucher acknowledged putting Connolly with Stamkos and St. Louis is a tough task, "intimidating" even for an older player, as "you want to play their game and don't want to make a mistake and make sure you fit."
Whether Connolly remains a fit remains to be seen.
"He will eventually be an NHL player," Boucher said. "Now is he going to be an NHL player this year for a long time? It's up to him and up to circumstances, too, for us to see if he can manage, because we don't want to hurt the kid. It's about respecting the process and being patient and smart, because I've seen so many guys that are good that lose it because they stick too early. We want to make sure we don't make that mistake."