Connolly said some of the players who dropped by Wednesday included John Carlson, Braden Holtby, Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, Michal Kempny, Chandler Stephenson, Lars Eller, Jakub Vrana and Radko Gudas, with whom Connolly played at Tampa Bay.
“At the end of last season, you kind of give a half-assed goodbye and you go home, and I don’t re-sign in Washington and last night was the first time I’ve seen those guys since it happened,” Connolly said.
Connolly said Thursday’s game will be a “little weird” during warm-ups and the first period, but soon, the feelings will start to fizzle out.
“Once Willie hits me one time, I think that’ll be it,” Connolly joked, referring to Wilson. “Then it’ll be on. It’ll be fun.”
During his three years with Washington, Connolly recorded a combined 52 goals and 44 assists, scoring six goals in the 2018 playoffs. Last year, he tallied 22 goals and 46 points — career highs — but the Capitals’ tight salary cap squeeze made it hard to keep him. After playing on a two-year, $1.5 average annual value million deal the last two seasons for Washington, the nine-year NHL veteran would be seeking more and he got it from Florida, signing a four-year deal worth $3.5 million annually.
Playing on the second line, he is a mainstay on the Panthers’ second power-play unit. He has five goals and five assists for Florida (7-3-4) through 14 games.
“It’s been a smooth transition, and everything is kind of what I expected and what I wanted,” Connolly said.
And his former teammates and coaches couldn’t be happier for his opportunity. Lars Eller, who routinely played on a line with Connolly in Washington, said Connolly would be more of a primary scorer on a lot of other teams — which now includes Florida — but Washington had a lot of depth that limited his opportunities.
“I’m happy for him that things worked out, and he’s gotten to this point where he is at in his career,” Eller said. “He’s a gifted goal scorer, and I think he really established himself as that more and more, the last years of his time here, and it is very reflective too in the playoffs where we went all the way. So happy for him that he got a good contract somewhere and has moved on.”
When Connolly arrived in Washington in 2016, he was looking to jump-start his career, coming off a nine-goal, 16-assist season with Boston. With the Capitals, who have had success with low-risk, inexpensive reclamation projects, Connolly tallied a then-career-high 15 goals his first season with Washington and remained steady through his final two years.
The fans in Washington quickly gravitated toward him.
“The fans were great to me for three years there and really welcomed me and were good to me,” Connolly said. “I’ll miss it there for sure. The fans were great; everybody was great. It will be cool to go back there in November and play there and see all the little things, security guards, and the people that work around the rink.”
But for now, with the Capitals riding a four-game winning streak into Florida, Connolly has stabilized his place with the Panthers, and when his former teammates walked out of his house Wednesday night, the door on his time with Washington finally closed.