What's Best for Brett?
Game nine for Lightning prospect Brett Connolly is tonight against the Buffalo Sabres in New York. If he plays a tenth game for the Lightning, his entry level contract kicks in and the Lightning are on the hook for his full salary this year. Heâ€™s also one year closer to restricted free agency.
Their only other choice is to return Connolly to Prince George of the Western Hockey League (Major Junior). Because he is not yet 20 years of age, he canâ€™t play in the development-friendly AHL with Norfolk.
So the question hovering over the heads of Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman and Head Coach Guy Boucher is â€œWhat to do with Connolly?â€
Yzerman and Boucher have been asked ad nauseum about the decision, and they either donâ€™t know or arenâ€™t telling.
They have been upfront about their philosophies, such as placing the priorities on whatâ€™s best for the player, whatâ€™s best for the team, not treating a prospect like a â€œnew toyâ€ with the big club, and projections vs. reality.
This story has become so big it feels a little like the Vincent Lecavalier trade talk of the final days of Rick Dudleyâ€™s era as Lightning GM.
Keep in mind the fallout from either side of the decision isnâ€™t even in the same stratosphere as that.
To bottom line it, if Connolly stays past nine games the Lightning end up paying a decent portion of money a year earlier than anticipated.
Hide your kids! Hide your wife!
In other words, itâ€™s a big deal, but itâ€™s not Lecavalier-to-the-Leafs big. Connolly will still be a Bolt regardless of what happens. Itâ€™s just a matter of when.
Connollyâ€™s development will not be hurt by staying in the NHL because Boucher is using him correctly (top-6/9 roll) and is keeping him above 12 minutes of play. Heâ€™s developing by playing a role he will be playing in the future. This isnâ€™t James Wright of two years ago playing a fourth line spot when the club really wants him in a two-way role in the future.
The Lightning are too smart to let him waste away serving popcorn in the pressbox as a healthy scratch, too. And donâ€™t forget, Steven Stamkos benefited from a few nights watching from the rafters in his rookie season â€“ and he was a year younger than Connolly when that happened.
If Connollyâ€™s play dictates he shouldnâ€™t be getting 12 minutes on the ice (though heâ€™s shown no indication of a dip in play), then a decision could be made down the road.
Yzerman has access to the wallet of one of the richest owners in the sport, so even if Connolly stays for a while, shows his body and/or ability canâ€™t handle the grind of 50 NHL games or so, and needs to be sent back to junior to keep him in line to be a future impact player, they can simply return him to Prince George and eat the salary.
Heâ€™ll just be the richest guy on the bus.
On the other side of the initial and immediate decision, if Connolly goes back to junior this week, will the Lightning spin out of control and end up drafting on Panthers Row? (Usually referred to as the front row of the draft where the worst teams pick; the Panthers have been there for a while.)
The drop-off from Connolly to Ryan Shannon or Mattias Ritola in that role is indeed a drop off, but thereâ€™s not a huge hole in the lineup. Shannon will come around and Ritola, though he doesnâ€™t have the speed to play with certain players, is capable of playing an offensive role. Thereâ€™s also Carter Ashton tearing it up for Norfolk. He could be recalled if necessary and could arguably make more of an impact than all three because of his size, physical play, and tenacity.
In other words, the Lightning will be fine without Connolly.
Norfolk Coach Jon Cooper told Bolt Prospects during training camp that the best development for a prospect is winning.
(Thereâ€™s a Charlie Sheen â€œDuhâ€ that could be written here, but we wonâ€™t do it.)
This could be the clincher for young Connolly.
The Lightning are a winning team. Theyâ€™re going to push for the division title and have several players up for awards at seasonâ€™s end.
Prince George is sitting at the bottom of the WHLâ€™s Western Conference at 3-8-0-0. The clubâ€™s leading scorer is a defenseman with one goal and that defenseman, Martin Marincin, is the only drafted player on the Cougarsâ€™ roster.
A lot will be put on Connollyâ€™s shoulders should he return.
But thatâ€™s not all.
NHL GMs can make their preferences known that theyâ€™d like their prized prospect traded at the junior level, but Connolly is a homegrown player for the Cougars and at this point may be their marketing departmentâ€™s saving grace.
The Cougars need Connolly in their lineup, at least until the trading deadline.
Itâ€™d be different if he were heading to Tri-City or Spokane.
NHL newbies often say that at times the NHL is easier to play in than the AHL or lower because their teammates are always in the right position. Connolly will not be playing an NHL-style game or with a lot of quality talent for the lowly Cougars. Heâ€™ll be a one-man show, no disrespect to Marincin or 2013 stud Alex Forsberg.
The best decision for Connolly the player appears to be to stay with the Lightning.
The best decision for the Lightning is to have a prized prospect develop properly. Their 2011-2012 team will be okay either way.
Therefore, even if it takes scratching Connolly against Nashville and Winnipeg while they finalize their decision, make the call to keep Connolly.
That will answer the team's most pressing question now and hold fans over until "Do the Lightning Let Brett Play at World Juniors?" takes over.
(Eric DuBose photo)