WILMINGTON — The question clearly made Brett Connolly uncomfortable. He didn’t seem quite prepared for it, though perhaps he ought to have been. So it was, “Oh ho. Jeez. Uh. Oh boy.”
Instead of playing in the Stanley Cup Final with the team that drafted him, Connolly was in Toronto, watching it on television. He had been shipped to Boston in the early morning on the day of the NHL trade deadline, a deal that eventually left him out of the playoffs entirely while his former teammates in Tampa Bay played until the season’s final day.
“It was hard watching,” Connolly said Tuesday after the Bruins’ informal practice at Ristuccia Arena, when asked which team he was rooting for. “Obviously they had such a good run and a lot of guys I grew up with and played with and I’m very close friends with still.
“Obviously it was tough to watch them go that far. I’m not sure really how I would have felt if they’d won. When it was finally over, I was obviously happy for it to be over.”
And, now, ready for the next season to start.
Connolly, still just 23 years old, was selected with the sixth overall pick in the 2010 draft, but he never really made it with the Lightning. He didn’t fulfill that promise. So Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman was willing to part with Connolly.
“I guess it wasn’t just meant to be,” Connolly said. “It was something where they felt that I was a guy who they could move and get something for. Steve chose to move me. Obviously I was in the organization for a little while and didn’t have as much success as I would have liked there.
“That’s the good thing about change,” he said. “I’m very excited to be here. Can’t wait to get going. Obviously there’s a lot to prove to not only myself, but there’s a lot of people out there — maybe including Tampa — that I want to prove wrong.”
In 134 games with the Lightning, the right wing scored 18 goals and had 14 assists. He added two assists in a brief five-game cameo with the Bruins at the end of the season after suffering a displaced fracture in his right index finger in his second practice with Boston, an injury he says has healed completely.
It was a rough start to his second chance.
But Connolly, signed to a one-year deal with a cap hit of $1.025 million as a restricted free agent this summer, wants things to be different this season. He both expected and welcomed the one-year deal, a chance to demonstrate to the organization that he’s worthy of a long-term deal and, he said, “prove to myself that I can play a big role on this team.”
“There’s always pressure,” he said. “Obviously playing here in Boston, there’s that added pressure of playing in a big market, but something I’m excited for. I think for myself it’s a very good opportunity and something I’m hoping to grasp here.”
He will have his chances. The Bruins’ lines are far from set as they head into training camp, with mixing and matching likely throughout the next month.
He knows there are a bunch of new faces, a bunch of wings vying to play on the top lines. As he put it, “An opportunity like this doesn’t come around a lot. You want to take advantage of it when it’s given to you.”
To this point, Connolly has had a bit of a stop-and-start career, playing a career high 68 games in his rookie season, 2011-12. He played in just five the next season, 11 the one after that, and then 55 between Tampa Bay and Boston last season.
He’s hoping this season is when success finally sets in.
“Obviously there’s some changes this year, but I think everybody’s going in with an open mind, looking to [make] an impact,” Connolly said. “I know there’s a lot of young guys that are looking to make their mark on this team. Hopefully the young guys will push the older guys and we’ll have a good balance this year.”
He knows this could be a make-or-break year. He knows he has something to prove. And he knows that with the way last season ended, he’s not the only one in Boston to feel that way.
“There’s pressure everywhere,” he said. “You can’t really escape it, but it’s something that you’ve got to deal with.
“It’s wide open. It’s going to make for a pretty exciting training camp, very intense. Nobody’s happy with the way it ended last year. Guys are going to come in here and be ready, be energized, and be ready to make a difference. It’s an exciting time of year.”