Connolly enjoyed the best three years of his otherwise tumultuous NHL tenure in Washington, where he won the Stanley Cup in 2018. Might the Blackhawks provide Connolly a comparable comfort zone?
Before arriving in Washington, Brett Connolly was considered a first-round bust. Since leaving Washington, Connolly’s reputation has become marred by his albatross contract.
But for three blissful years with the Capitals, Connolly — in the right environment, with the right expectations, filling the right role — demonstrated how much he can contribute to a winning NHL team. He has a Stanley Cup ring from 2018 to prove it.
“It was just such an amazing ride,” the Canadian forward said this week, reminiscing. “It was amazing to be on a team like that where everybody seemed to enjoy each other’s company. [It was] just such a close team, which is something I’ll never forget. We obviously grew closer with the championship. I’m just very fortunate to be part of that.”
Much of Connolly’s now-10-year NHL career has not gone as anyone, especially he, hoped.
The Lightning, expecting immediate domination from their 2010 sixth overall pick, rushed him to the NHL, then banished him to the AHL when the immediate domination didn’t happen. The Bruins didn’t give him much time to get settled, either.
More recently, the Panthers phased him out of their rotation when he hit a “cold streak” earlier this season, then jettisoned him as a negative-value asset to the Blackhawks in an April 8 trade.
With the Caps, however, Connolly thrived. He scored at least 15 goals in each of his three regular seasons there, topping out at an impressive 22 goals and 24 assists in 2018-19.
“My role was defined on the team,” he said. “There wasn’t a ton of pressure to score every night. I signed there to just play a third-line role and got really comfortable with the group. I was playing with a lot of confidence. They gave me an opportunity to just go out there and play and not think too much, and it worked out.”
Connolly added six goals and three assists during the 2018 championship run, but earned more attention for his kindness than for his solid secondary production.
A video of him tossing 6-year-old Caps fan Keelan Moxley three pucks during warmups — until she finally caught one — went viral and started a conversation over gender and age equality in hockey fandom.
“Anytime we can put a smile on young kids’ faces, that’s what it’s all about,” he later told reporters.
Another video of him chugging a Bud Light in seven seconds on stage at the Caps’ victory parade was perhaps less kid-friendly but equally exemplified Connolly’s down-to-earth personality.
Ask a Hawks fan which Cup winners are currently playing for the Hawks, and most will correctly name Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith. But Connolly, who turns 29 on Sunday, has actually upped the total to three, and it turns out the trio has already talked about it.
“Theirs was three in five years, so that’s a little different, and both guys won Conn Smythe [Trophies],” Connolly said. “But it’s definitely cool to hear little stories about their runs and the differences and similarities to [mine]. It’s been great to get to know those guys.”
Coach Jeremy Colliton has also appreciated learning about Connolly’s journey while integrating him into the team.
“I try to spend extra time early on to get him prepared to play,” Colliton said. “It’s always nice to pick his brain, [hear] how they were doing it in Washington.”
Connolly’s best skill is his finishing. His career 14.0% shooting percentage ranks 10th among all active players with 500-plus appearances.
But he’s never been a major puck-mover or playmaker, so he fell out of Joel Quenneville’s favor in Florida earlier this season when his accuracy dropped off (his on-goal shooting percentage went from 56.6% to 44.4%), his possession numbers slumped (46.9% on-ice scoring chance ratio) and his production lagged (two goals, two assists in 21 games).
“You go through stretches where you don’t score, and you press a little harder, press a little harder, and sometimes that isn’t the best way to go about it,” Connolly said. “Once that happens and there’s lots of options for ‘Q,’ something that was pretty quickly in their minds was that they were going to try and move me.
“It’s the business side of it, and you’ve got to move on.”
But the same contract that tanked Connolly’s value in Florida — he has two years left on a four-year deal with a $3.5 million cap hit — now may actually give him more stability with the Hawks.
He still could be moved or bought out this summer, but his hefty cap hit makes that relatively unlikely compared to other players. General manager Stan Bowman, the day he acquired Connolly, Riley Stillman and the rights to Henrik Borgstrom, spoke about Connolly like he’ll be sticking around.
“We think he’s someone who can fit in with this group,” Bowman said. “[I] wasn’t too concerned about his contract. It was really the combination of what we saw in Connolly plus the other pieces that was attractive to us.”
And that stability is exactly what Connolly needs.
“It’s a couple years for me to prove myself and [prove] I want to be part of the process going forward with this organization,” he said “I’m looking to finish this year strong. But whatever happens at the end of this year, [I will] hit the reset button and focusing on having a good next two years of my career here.”
Connolly scored in his first game with the Hawks, immediately checking off that sometimes anxiety-inducing box.
He hasn’t recorded a point in seven games since — mainly in a fourth-line role — but has generated strong underlying numbers, including 55.6% shot-attempt and 50.9% scoring-chance ratios.
And there’s something in the Chicago air bringing back the sense of optimism and opportunity he felt in Washington. Both Connolly and the Hawks’ organization are far from those Capitals-in-2018 heights currently, but he smells potential on both fronts.
“You drive around the city and you see all the Blackhawks bars and logos and people wearing hats and jerseys,” he said. “You drive around and envision yourself winning here and being part of a good team here, and that definitely excites you. It’d be a lot of fun to be a part of that.”