Brett Connolly was having some doubts during his first three months in Washington. He loved the city, he loved his new teammates, and he wanted nothing more than to be a fit with the Capitals. But he was out of the lineup more often than he was in it, and on his third team at 24, he feared it was his last shot to show he was an NHLer. He never went so far as to ask for a trade, but he and his agent started to wonder whether there was a better opportunity elsewhere.
“That was a career-defining year,” Connolly said of the 2016-17 season.
He stuck it out and ended up having career-best years with back-to-back 15-goal seasons, and he might not be done reinventing himself. As the Capitals (5-4-3) have gotten off to a rocky start, Connolly’s play has been a silver lining. He’s riding a three-game point streak, and he’s the team leader in five-on-five points with eight.
While in the past his production came from scoring with a high shooting percentage, he has been more of a playmaker in the Capitals’ first 12 games. With seven assists, he’s more than halfway to his 70-game total of 12 last season. He had a career-high 0.39 points per game last season, and he’s currently producing 0.75 points per game.
“He’s no longer in the Cy Young race this year,” goaltender Braden Holtby cracked, referencing a hockey expression for players who have more goals than assists because their stat line reads like a strong baseball pitcher’s record.
“He’s a great player,” Holtby added. “His shot is phenomenal, and I mean, I think that’s just the situation he’s been in with the lines and stuff — he’s kind of been the shooter. He’s finding ways to create other ways, but I don’t think his game has changed that much. I think sometimes it just works that way, but he’s playing really well.”
Perhaps the biggest change for Connolly has been his coach. Under Barry Trotz, Connolly’s opportunities were typically limited to 10 to 12 minutes per game, and he was occasionally a healthy scratch, including for much of the 2017 playoffs. But in Coach Todd Reirden’s first month behind the bench, Connolly was promoted to the top line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin, and while he eventually shifted back to his third-line home beside center Lars Eller, his minutes are up to more than 14 per game.
“I just think that Connolly’s playing with a lot more confidence than he has in the past,” Reirden said. “Not every game is his best by any means, but he’s been able to generate scoring opportunities and be a part of them. Maybe if they’re not him, he’s still the primary guy who’s setting up those chances. So in our evaluations, we think he’s done a lot of good things with the puck and continue to need to have him do that so we can get some depth scoring.
“For me, it comes from his confidence, building on last year for him, and getting the ability to play with some of our top guys to start the year. When we had him up on our top line, it was a good situation for him. He sees that at any time he could be moved up to play with those guys.”
And maybe that wasn’t necessarily the case before.
“[Reirden] has been very open about giving me a legitimate chance to take the next step with my game,” Connolly said. “He feels that I’ve earned that, so I think the extra couple minutes a night … that’s an extra two, three shifts a game, which makes a big difference. But they’re different styles — him and Barry are completely different — and there’s just been a lot of communication. . . . It’s been a good start, and I’m happy with the way it’s gone so far.”
Connolly is slated to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, but there’s no longer the question of whether he belongs in the NHL. Tampa Bay made him the draft’s sixth pick in 2010, but his career was derailed when he was thrust into the league too soon at 19, and he felt even more “lost” when he was traded to Boston in March 2015, he said. He has revived his career with the Capitals — his six goals and three assists in 24 playoff games were an overlooked part of the team’s Stanley Cup run — but what has him most encouraged is that he senses his game can still grow.
“I think this year is a little different,” he said. “Obviously we won the Cup, and I’ve proven myself in the last two seasons and in the playoffs, the most important time of the year. They know what I can do — they’ve seen it, and Todd’s seen it — and now it’s just a matter of trying to be as consistent as possible, and when you don’t have good nights, bounce back right away. It’s definitely a completely different situation with the coaching staff, for sure.”
Read more on the Capitals: