As last night was top prospect Brett Connolly's ninth game of the season, the Tampa Bay Lightning had to decide sometime before their game Thursday night if they would send Connolly down to the Western Hockey League (Major Junior) or would keep him up with the Bolts. If they kept Connolly up any longer, it would start the clock on his three year entry-level contract, making him more expensive this season and eligible for restricted free agency after the 2013-2014 season. But since Connolly is only 19-years-old, the Lightning couldn't send him to the AHL yet; they would have been forced to send him down to the WHL, a league that's much worse for player development than the AHL.
The Lightning didn't waste any time making the decision, though. After last night's victory over Buffalo, GM Steve Yzerman told Connolly that he would be staying in Tampa Bay this season. People will argue whether or not this was a good decision, but in the end, this was the right call: it's best for Connolly's development, and it makes the Lightning a better team.
As the 6th pick in the 2010 draft, Brett Connolly is a highly valuable prospect and a key part of the Lightnings' future. He's shown star potential in the past -- he was the first 16-year-old to score 30 goals in the WHL in 13 years -- and as a right wing, the Bolts would love to groom him as their eventual replacement for aging star Martin St. Louis. Connolly's development is therefore very important to the Bolts, and as the folks over at Bolts Prospects pointed out yesterday, Connolly will likely be better off this year in the NHL than the WHL:
Prince George is sitting at the bottom of the WHL's Western Conference at 3-8-0-0. The club's leading scorer is a defenseman with one goal and that defenseman, Martin Marincin, is the only drafted player on the Cougars' roster.
A lot will be put on Connolly's shoulders should he return. [...]
NHL newbies often say that at times the NHL is easier to play in than the AHL or lower because their teammates are always in the right position. Connolly will not be playing an NHL-style game or with a lot of quality talent for the lowly Cougars. He'll be a one-man show, no disrespect to Marincin or 2013 stud Alex Forsberg.
Learning is a tricky process; you want players to be challenged, but not too challenged. As we all know from our day-to-day lives, it's very difficult to gain anything from an experience when you're in over your head; we panic, flail about, and perform worse than we would otherwise. Instead, people learn best when placed in their "stretch zones" -- situations that are new and challenging to us, but still doable.
Right now, Connolly is showing that he belongs in the NHL. He hasn't lit the league on fire right off the bat, but he also hasn't struggled. He has yet to score a goal, but he has two assists and he's learning by playing with many of the top players on the team. He's averaging around 12 minutes on the ice per game, and has seen as much total ice time as players like Steve Downie and Ryan Malone. He's been one of the top men used in the second line for the Bolts, and he's been matched most often with Martin St. Louis, Pavel Kubina, Brett Clark, and Vincent Lecavalier.
Connolly's Corsi numbers* are currently below average (-9.5 relative Corsi), but it's still early in the season and small sample rules apply. Martin St. Louis also has a poor Corsi score at the moment, and the Lightning trio of Stamkos, Lecavalier, and St. Louis all typically rate around average (or slightly above average) in Corsi. So it's still too early to tell how Connolly is contributing to the Bolts, but so far, he appears to be holding his own decently.
*Corsi is an advanced hockey statistic that tracks the number of shots taken on goal when a player is on the ice versus how many shots are taken when they are not on the ice. Since shots is a more repeatable skill for teams, it's a better predictor of future success than simple Goals Scored or Points.
This is an exciting time for Lightning fans, as their team is full of both star players (Lecavalier, St. Louis), young blood (Hedman, Connolly), and Steven Stamkos, who's a bit of both. This team is built for short term and long term success, and as their decision with Connolly shows, they're not afraid to make the gutsy call if they think it's in the best interest of the club.
The Brett Connolly Era has begun. Here's hoping he's a Bolt for many years down the road.