TAMPA — Before Brett Connolly left his teenage years, the former first-round draft pick experienced more downs than ups.
A hip injury forced him to miss most of his draft-year season, leading to questions about his durability. And a confidence-eroding rookie season as a 19-year-old left some pondering whether Tampa Bay made a mistake selecting the winger with the sixth overall pick in 2010.
But after a sophomore pro season in which he experienced some success last year, the 21-year-old enters Lightning training camp this week a more mature player ready to make his mark. Connolly will compete for one of the few open forward spots on the Tampa Bay roster when players officially report on Wednesday.
“I have a lot to prove,” Connolly said. “I know that I am a better player and I'm not the same player I was when I was 19. I just need to show that. I'm looking to build on everything that I did last year and bring that here (to training camp) and prove to the organization that I want to be here long term. I want to be a part of this; they have a good thing going here.”
Connolly made the Lightning as a 19-year-old for the 2011-12 season and started off well with four goals during a seven-game span in November — including his first overtime winner. But he faded as the season carried on and was loaned to Canada for the World Junior Championships in late December.
When he returned to the Lightning, Connolly was a frequent healthy scratch and did not score over the final 50 games of the season. It was a far cry from his 46-goal campaign his final year in junior hockey with Prince George.
“I was 19 years old, and in junior, I would score more times than not,” Connolly said. “And coming in here, it didn't happen. My first year here, it was tough for a while. There were days you wake up and you are squeezing your stick a little too tight.”
Last year, however, the scoring touch returned and his confidence was regained.
Connolly learned to be a more complete player by working on the defensive side of his game, while still finishing the regular season with 31 goals and 63 points for Syracuse in the American Hockey League, both second on the team.
Though not initially named to the AHL All-Star game, he was named to the second-team at the end of the season.
In the playoffs, Connolly appeared in all 18 games as the Crunch advanced to the Calder Cup final, finishing with six goals despite a back injury.
“He's very skilled, he works hard and I think he got smarter as the year went on,'' said Tyler Johnson, a Syracuse teammate and the reigning AHL MVP. “He became one of our best players by the end of the year.
“He's a great guy to have on the ice. You felt like he was able to be on in any situation, and you felt like you trusted him in every situation. I think that's the big thing, he learned to play a smart two-way game.”
Though Connolly did not come to the Lightning's abbreviated training camp when the lockout was resolved in January, he earned a five-game call-up near the end of the season after coach Jon Cooper, who started the year with Syracuse, was promoted to the Lightning. Connolly scored on April 11 against Pittsburgh, ending a 54-game goals drought before returning to Syracuse for the postseason run.
“There were some days where you are not confident as a young kid and things are not going your way, but I just learned to put that behind me, move on, and I improved different parts of my game,” Connolly said.
“Last year was the best thing for me. I got to play a lot, I had a good season and regained confidence again. I got to do a lot of things I know I can do well and just making plays, scoring again. And it was good to get that back. So, I just want to carry that into training camp and into this year.”