The last time forward Brett Connolly was an unrestricted free agent, his options were limited, his price was low, and his future was in question. The Boston Bruins decided against tendering Connolly a qualifying offer in 2016, so he hit the open market July 1 as a top-10 draft selection whom some considered a bust. Connolly signed a one-year, $850,000 deal with the Washington Capitals, a last chance to revitalize his NHL career.
Connolly seized the opportunity, and the team continued to benefit from the forward’s presence and production. Eventually, what began as a one-year trial became a three-year stay in Washington.
“It was the three best years of my life,” Connolly said.
Connolly’s three seasons in Washington have been his most productive, and coming off a career-best 22 goals and 24 assists in 81 games, this time free agency will go much differently for him. If he hits the open market July 1, he should fetch an average annual value of at least $4 million on his next contract, especially now that he has a Stanley Cup victory on his résumé and scored six goals during that playoff run last year. Of the Capitals’ unrestricted free agents, Connolly is the most likely to be re-signed, but with the team expected to run into salary cap constraints this summer, both sides have a lot to consider. For Connolly to stay, he almost certainly would have to compromise on term and/or salary.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” Connolly said. “Obviously this year, knowing the situation, I’ve expressed that I want to be back. That’s obvious. But a lot of things will play into that. I had a great year — my best year by far, coming off winning a Stanley Cup. I have a lot of confidence in my game, with myself, which I think is a big thing now. I feel like my career really started in the last couple of years in a weird way, just with that confidence and the belief that I can do it, and I can be a contributor and score 20 goals, which is what I’ve always wanted to do. It just took a little while. We’ll see. But obviously I want to be back, but there are a lot of different things that factor into it.”
Washington will be wary of how much money it ties up beyond next season, with goaltender Braden Holtby and top center Nicklas Backstrom due for new contracts in the summer of 2020. Connolly, who turned 27 on Thursday, is aware of all of that, including the fact that the Capitals’ priority this summer is extending 23-year-old forward Jakub Vrana, who also is coming off a career year with a 40-point campaign. Winger Carl Hagelin, who will turn 31 in August, is also a pending unrestricted free agent this summer, and while he was a good fit after Washington acquired him in February and vastly improved the penalty kill, he doesn’t have the offensive upside of Connolly and is four years older.
Asked about how much roster turnover he expects, General Manager Brian MacLellan said: "We’ll have some decisions to make. We’ll find out which direction we’re going on Vrana with a term deal or a bridge deal. Some of it’s money decisions. Some of it’s we need to make a couple changes. ... Depending on what we decide to do, you might have to create some space and just go from there.”
Connolly has now played for three teams — his career started with the Tampa Bay Lightning before he was traded to the Bruins — so he has had an education in how much fit and comfort within a dressing room can affect on-ice performance. With Boston and Tampa Bay, Connolly was arguably forced into too high of a spot in the lineup with too much pressure. In Washington, he consistently played on the third line. The expectations weren’t as great, and Connolly got better with each season, but his ice time maxed out at this year’s 13:20 per game with limited power-play time. The Capitals’ top six are established, so Connolly must consider whether he wants another shot at that role elsewhere.
“I was able to produce here, for sure, but it was in a limited role,” Connolly said. “So, part of me wants to challenge myself again and take that next step in my development. I feel I’m in the prime of my career. My body feels great. There’s going to be opportunity out there; I know that. It’s just a matter of making a decision for me and for my family, something that fits. If it’s here, that’s great. Obviously, that would be ideal, but there’s also opportunities elsewhere. There are lots of good teams and a lot of good teams looking for guys to chip in offensively to help win.”
No matter whether Connolly ends up staying or going this summer, he repeatedly expressed his gratitude to Washington, where he won a championship and also realized the potential he always thought he had. His best year came last, good timing for what is expected to be a big pay day with plenty of suitors.
“It’s a situation that three years ago, when I signed here, when I didn’t get qualified by Boston, that I never thought would come," Connolly said. "You know you’re confident in yourself, but there’s always some doubt. I had to prove myself again, and now I’m here after a great year, and I’m going to the market, maybe. It’s crazy how things change in this league, and if you stick with it and keep working, it works out.”