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  • Brett Connolly, a former first-round pick for the Tampa Bay Lightning, has found a 'home' with the Washington Capitals.
By Alex Prewitt
May 18, 2018

ARLINGTON, Va. — Brett Connolly came to the crossroads on a rainy afternoon two years ago, over burgers at a chain restaurant near Toronto. The phone rang. It was his agent, delivering news in the form of a deadline. The Washington Capitals had reached out during the first day of free agency, offering a one-year deal worth $850,000. And they needed a decision soon.

Fifteen minutes, his agent explained.  

Yes or no?

Caught off-guard, Connolly’s mind raced. He had entered the NHL as the sixth-overall selection in 2010—exactly 10 picks ahead of St. Louis All-Star Vladimir Tarasenko and 20 before future teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov—known for a scorching shot that made pro scouts drool and junior goalies look like fools. Since then, however, the winger had been demoted, benched, traded, injured, humbled and released by the Bruins, who relinquished his contractual rights when they decided not to tender him a qualifying offer on June 27, 2016. 

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“My career was at a standstill,” Connolly says. “It was a tough couple of years. But sometimes it takes you a little bit of time to find a role on a team.”

He is sitting in the dressing room at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, still fully clothed after a recent practice between Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference Final, in which Connolly is facing his first NHL team, the Tampa Bay Lightning. It is a long way from the burger joint, whether marked by geographical or mental mileage. The road to reclamation started when Connolly called his agent back and agreed to sign with Washington, accepting far less than what most players of his draft status ordinarily command at his age (24). But he has since blossomed into a bargain value, reaching 15 goals in two seasons for the Capitals and scoring four more as a third-line mainstay during these Stanley Cup playoffs despite averaging around 12 minutes each night. 

“Sometimes a young man’s path is not always a straight line,” says coach Barry Trotz, tracing a roundabout route through the air with his finger. “Its back and forth. It’s a little indirect. He keeps climbing through. That’s a good sign for us and a good sign for Conno.”

Connolly traces his progress to a conversation with teammate T.J. Oshie at the start of last season. They were screwing around with some different stick models and Connolly discovered that he really enjoyed the whippier curve on Oshie’s blade. After tweaking its flex to fit personal preference and switching his supplier from Warrior to CCM, Connolly immediately saw results. “I think it’s really changed the way I shoot it,” he says. “I had a pretty good shot before. Just wasn’t beating goalies the way I am now. I honestly feel like that was big.”

The new specs matched Connolly’s punchy release. “He has no backswing to it,” Capitals goalie Braden Holtby says. “The puck is just on and off. Most guys can do that, but the speed isn’t deceptive. When he lets it go, it gets on you in a hurry.” Like when Connolly struck the final goal in Game 2, a 6-2 rout at Tampa’s Amalie Arena. Trailing the rush above the faceoff circle, he caught a pass behind his body while fully squared to goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. All in one motion, Connolly kicked his left leg into the air and whipped a dart over Vasilevskiy’s blocker pad.

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“He’s very good at getting quality shots off when there’s not a lot of room to operate,” says Lars Eller, who centered Connolly for much of this season. “You see in really tight areas, you have maybe a couple three feet, four feet of room to maneuver with the stick. His runway is very short, but he’s still very fluid.”

Among the Capitals’ loaded forward corps, Connolly serves as something of an offensive specialist. He receives only nominal time on the power play as the backup triggerman behind Oshie and only eclipsed 16 total minutes in three games during the regular season. But it’s hard to argue that Connolly hasn’t made the most of his opportunities; recently he became only the second NHL player since 1994-95 with at least 15 goals on fewer than 70 shots (Mathieu Perreault) and finished third on Washington in 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes (0.83).

“It’s like he’s a basketball player who comes off the bench and just drains a three right away,” Holtby says. “Hopefully there’s more of a ceiling, because I definitely think he has it in him.”

Expectations were much higher when Connolly joined the Lightning. Three years earlier he had become the first 16-year-old to hit 30 goals in the Western Hockey League since 1995-96, which kept his draft stock high amid ongoing hip problems. After one more season of junior hockey incubation, Connolly surprised even himself by making Tampa’s opening day roster as a teenager in 2011. He does not shy away from everything that went wrong after that.

“I had some really hard times there,” he says. “I just felt like I couldn’t do anything right. I was a young kid, still trying to figure out being a professional hockey player. It took me a couple years to really find that in myself in terms of being a pro, focusing on my body.” Other organizations might’ve prioritized clout over results, but Connolly soon found himself buried on the Lightning depth chart below undrafted free agents (Tyler Johnson) and lower-round picks (Ondrej Palat) alike. After two seasons in the minors and 50 games with Tampa in 2014-15, Connolly was traded for a pair of second-round picks, where he watched as the Lightning went on to reach the Stanley Cup Final.  

“I have a soft spot for Brett,” says Tampa coach Jon Cooper. “He’s a gifted scorer. The one thing he’s always had is that gift … But that was kind of his go-to. And there wasn’t really a ton else to his game. Now he plays D, he’s responsible, he’s hard on pucks, got a strong stick… I’m really impressed with the way he’s developed. It took him a little bit of time to figure it all out.”

“They gave me every opportunity and invested a lot in me,” Connolly says. “Just wasn’t a fit. It wasn't meant for me at time. And now I’m here, having a ton of fun playing against them in the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s crazy how it all turns around. It’s been a wild ride.” 

Of course, Connolly is not just referring to the games themselves. As warmups progressed on April 15 before the series opener against Columbus, he was working through his usual routine, juggling a puck on his stick and trying to land it flush atop the blade, when he caught sight of a young girl in a red jersey, hands pressed against the glass and a hopeful look on her face. So Connolly did what he often does: skated over, gestured toward the girl, and tossed the puck over the boards. What happened next made, as he puts it, “the internet explode.”

You know the story. The initial puck was intercepted by a (much taller, obviously) man and given to a nearby boy. “You can tell she’s so devastated,” Connolly recalls. “I go and grab another one.” Same result, much sadder. Exasperated, he finally whacked the glass for emphasis and connected. The girl—Keelan Moxley of Chesapeake Bay, Md., then 6 years old—clutched the puck and beamed. Within three days the moment had become the NHL’s most streamed Twitter video ever, boasting more than 46,000 likes at last count. “It was a real special moment,” Connolly says. “I’ll never forget it. It was the first time I’ve done something that has gone viral.”

The moment further endeared Connolly to the Capitals fan base, though by then he was already starting to feel plenty at ease. “I want to be here for a long time,” says Connolly, who signed a two-year, $3 million extension last June. “I’ve found a comfort level where I can just go out and play and play well.” Bigger tests lurk ahead now that Washington dropped Games 3-4 at home, returning to Tampa tied at two apiece. But Connolly has already scored twice against his former team this series. Why not, as Trotz says, keep climbing through?

“I really had to find my game and work at it,” Connolly says. “There were a lot of tough days. You put so much pressure on yourself to play well. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. I’ve found a little bit of a home here and would love nothing more than to beat these guys and move onto the Stanley Cup Final.”