BRANDON — Brett Connolly said it was probably the toughest day in his hockey career.
It was late last September, and the forward, 2010's No. 6 overall draft pick, was sent down to AHL Syracuse despite having another strong camp with the Lightning.
General manager Steve Yzerman didn't like doing it, either.
"I really felt bad," Yzerman said. "Because everything he did on the ice was enough to warrant a spot on the team. Unfortunately, we had guys ahead of him that needed to play."
So Connolly's Crunch teammates Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat got their shots and became Calder Trophy finalists for the league's top rookie. Wings Richard Panik and Nikita Kucherov spent most of the season with Tampa Bay.
But now it's Connolly's turn. It's a make-or-break season for Connolly, 22, who is on a one-year, two-way deal but must clear waivers if he gets sent down. The Lightning is counting on him to not only make the team but also battle for top-nine minutes. Connolly has to earn a job and is eager to finally fulfill his potential.
"Obviously it's a big year," Connolly said. "I'm excited. I put the work in this summer. I'm still confident in my game, and I'm really excited to prove to a lot of people that I do belong here."
Connolly, a 6-foot-2, 181-pound right wing, doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. "Just do what he did last year," Yzerman said.
Connolly is healthy and coming off another summer of training with captain Steven Stamkos and former NHL forward Gary Roberts in Toronto. Stamkos said Connolly has been one of the best players in camp the past two years, lauding his work ethic.
"I'm pushing for him," Stamkos said. "I hope he gets a spot on this team. He deserves it. He's had two great camps the last two years. It just hasn't worked out. So hopefully the third time is the charm."
Yzerman said Connolly became a better player last season with the Crunch, playing in all situations, something he wouldn't have done with Tampa Bay. He had 21 goals and 36 assists in 66 games with the Crunch but struggled to find his game in a brief callup to Tampa Bay (one goal, minus-5 in 11 games).
"I need to hold on to pucks, not (be) throwing away pucks (but) protecting pucks," Connolly said. "Use my strength to shield off guys and not be easy to play against. I have to take another step this year."
Connolly said he's a completely different player than he was at 19 years old, when he appeared in 68 games with the Lightning (four goals, 11 assists) in a complementary role. Was it too much, too soon? "I look back, when I was 19, it's crazy to think I played a full year in the NHL," Connolly said. "Whether it was the right thing or not, it doesn't really matter now."
Connolly said he owes a lot to coach Jon Cooper, his former coach in Syracuse. "He kind of took me over, and he changed my game," he said. Connolly, always a talented scorer, is more responsible defensively. When he saw Johnson and Palat shine last season, he wasn't bitter.
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"Those are guys that have paid their dues in the American League," Connolly said. "They got an opportunity last year, and they took advantage of it. For me, I want to take advantage of the opportunity this year. I want to do the same thing they did last year."
TOP GUNS: Stamkos did not participate in Sunday's scrimmage or practice, a scheduled off day for him. Cooper said they have a plan for Stamkos, who has a surgically repaired right leg after breaking it last season. "We need him for October," Cooper said. "We don't need him necessarily right now. "
Right wing Jonathan Drouin skated before practice but was held out for the second straight day for a minor upper-body injury. He probably won't scrimmage today, either, Cooper said.
GAME ON: Left wing Yanni Gourde scored the only goal of the 40-minute scrimmage, which included just 30 shots. "I guess if we're going with a defense-first attitude, it really showed up," Cooper quipped.
Cooper was happy how the Lightning implemented tweaks to its system, as well as players' pace and energy.
The scrimmage was also physical. Center Brian Boyle had a blood stain on his jersey, thanks to his helmet cutting him above the left eye during a check. "It's crazy that it drew blood 'cause these eyebrows usually protect me from pretty much anything," he joked. For more highlights from the scrimmage, go to tampabay.com/blogs/lightning.
MISCELLANY: Right wing Mike Blunden was excused because his wife was giving birth to their first child. … Right wing Cameron Maclise was released from camp.