Brett Connolly, you may have noticed, has been a polarizing figure for some time now. From the day he was drafted, really, as his gum-chewing and detached demeanor during an interview rubbed some the wrong way. Subsequent appearances have not helped much to alleviate the general perception of Connolly as cold and aloof, the antithesis to the ebullient Steven Stamkos. Perhaps, too, the early returns Anaheim and Carolina have received from Cam Fowler and Jeff Skinner may have had some fans wondering if Yzerman chose the wrong kid in 2010. However, a lackluster personality and not developing as quickly as others can easily be forgiven.
That Connolly's immediate future within the Lightning organization has come into question, though, is mostly a result of his roller-coaster of a rookie season during which he seemed to spend more time plummeting than climbing. The late-season signings and professional debuts of J.T. Brown and Alex Killorn as well as AHL MVP Cory Conacher earning a contract are significant factors too, but the discussion truly begins and ends with Connolly's own performance, of which opinions seem to range from entirely disastrous to, at best, disappointing. The prescriptions vary, too, from calls to bury Connolly in Syracuse for at least a season, starting him there with the expectation he'll earn a call-up, having him battle for an available roster spot in training camp and even reserving one for him so as to avoid crushing his confidence.
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Christmas has come and gone for us prospect followers and the excitement is starting to wear off â€“ along with my headache from staring at a computer screen too long. At one point Twitter told me it couldnâ€™t post my Bolt Prospects tweet because I was tweeting too much. Fair enough. On Sunday the picks and information were coming in faster than Cory Conacherâ€™s rise from a no-name to possible Calder Trophy candidate next year. It was tough to keep up.
Before the draft the Lightning had several organizational needs for the farm, not the NHL club. We get asked repeatedly on draft days if so-and-so can step right in and play. Unlike football, the answer is no â€“ outside of a couple picks in the top-5 overall. Yes, sometimes a Patrice Bergeron will sneak into the NHL right away, but itâ€™s best to just know that you wonâ€™t be seeing these players for a few years at the least, especially with the uber-patient Steve Yzerman in charge (and thatâ€™s a good thing).
When and how do you judge a trade or draft pick?
Earlier this week I tweeted from Bolt Prospects that it was the 10-year anniversary of then Lightning General Manager Jay Feaster sending the fourth overall pick to Philadelphia for a young forward Tampa Bay thought had some upside and two second round picks. At the time, jaws hit the floor from Nanaimo to Naples. I was standing on the line that divided my living room from my dining room and saw the trade go across the ticker on what I believe was ESPN-2. Yes, I remember exactly where I was standing when I saw the news.
It's been a day since the Norfolk Admirals hoisted the Calder Cup for the first time. The amazing thing about championships is that they're a shared milestone in the lives of, really, thousands, between the players, coaches, staff, and fans. Those journeys often contain compelling stories that make the triumph worth that journey. For Jon Cooper, it was about closing down his law practice to coach his way from Michigan high school hockey, to the USHL to working with Hockey USA, to a 2 season sprint to glory in the AHL. For Cory Conacher, it was about not being drafted and playing hockey at off-the-beaten path Canisius, dealing with diabetes, and earning an NHL contract in March of an MVP season before posting 4 assists in the championship clinching Calder Cup Finals game.
The stories of the players and the coaches are the ones we'll read about in the coming months and years, and they should be. When the Lightning made their Stanley Cup run in 2003-2004 and were playing the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals, John Tortorella refused to fire back at Ken Hithcock's remarks about "Italians from Boston," because Torts rightfully understood, "It's about the athletes." Ultimately, they're the ones who score the goals and make the saves. They sacrifice their bodies and take the stitches and they take the slings and arrows if they lose. Ultimately, it's their moment, and to a lesser extent the moments of their families who supported them in the journey up to those moments. The hockey moms and dads who woke up at 6:00 am to drive their kids to games. Scratching together money for skates and ridiculously expensive composite sticks. The wives and significant others who live with the players and coaches through the disappointments and the frustrations, and live in fear of moments when things can go wrong, like when slap shots can hit a man in the ear at 90 miles an hour, similar to what happened to Scott Jackson.
Less compelling, perhaps, is the story of an organization, but, these are stories can be worth telling, too... especially in this case. We started beta testing Bolt Prospects in 2004-2005, one year after the Lightning's Cup win, in the heart of the NHL lockout. That year was also the first year since the Detroit Vipers of the IHL folded after the 2000-2001 season that the Lightning had a full-time minor league affiliate: the Springfield Falcons. Absent a full-time affiliate, it became clear the Lightning would struggle to maintain their spot on top of the hockey mountain, because split affiliates would not give prime ice time and coaching help to another organization's players. That problem prompted the start of an 8 year process for the Lightning that ended in building what must be considered the sport's preeminent developmental apparatus with the Norfolk Admirals' Calder Cup championship and the Florida Everblades' Kelly Cup Championship.