Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 11/4/11
TAMPA, Fla. -- Brett Connolly couldn't have dreamed of a better opening act. At only 19, still a junior by eligibility, the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2010 first-round pick is skating on the vaunted second line with franchise icons Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier. Who could blame him for pinching himself? It's only a month into his rookie NHL season and he's skating with elite company. "I would never have thought that this would be happening right now, but it's a situation I want to take advantage of," said Connolly after Friday morning's skate at the Times Forum, in advance of the game against Chicago. "You can learn a lot playing with guys like that. So it's exciting for me, and they've obviously been good to me, too." Connolly is absorbing his lessons well, and punctuated his progress Tuesday night with his first goal of the season in a 4-2 loss at Carolina. But well before finding the back of the net, the former WHL and CHL Rookie of the Year in 2008-09 had made a strong impression of general manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Guy Boucher. In essence, he had a nine-game window to prove himself to the Lightning braintrust before his contract (2.7 million over three years) would have started to kick in. If he hadn't impressed, Connolly would likely have been sent back to Prince George of the WHL. But the 6-2, 181-pound left wing flourished when Boucher placed him on the line with the two Stanley Cup champions. He constantly asked their thoughts on playing the game and soaked up the nuances of the position the best he could. His enthusiasm for learning and ability to integrate the sage advice didn't go unnoticed, and neither did the steady strides he was making. "He was just trying to make the team and when he made the team, right now it's about details -- how to fit with that line," Boucher said. "St. Louis and Lecavalier are doing a good job of helping him with that, day to day. Obviously, I'm in the picture, too. But you don't want to overwhelm the kid, either, with You're supposed to do this; you have to do that' and put pressure on him. It's the opposite. You want to take as much pressure off. "Scoring a goal obviously for him will be a relief, because he's a goal-scorer. But I think on that line his role is a lot more about creating some space for the other two guys -- rather than him carrying the line. So the pressure's not making line work; it's making that line have some grit and being first on puck, and finishing checks for the other two, crashing the net while the other two are making plays. And he's been doing that. There's nothing different that he needs to do. He just needs to become an expert at that trait." Connolly is feeling increasingly comfortable at that role. "I feel like I'm improving every day, trying to take in everything I can and learn from the veteran guys," he said. "It's been good playing with Marty and Vinny ... They're easy to talk to and they have a ton of experience that I can take from." It's not the first time right wing St. Louis and center Lecavalier have nurtured a budding standout. Tampa Bay's No. 1 pick from 2008 and eventual leading goal-scorer Steven Stamkos benefited from playing alongside them, building his confidence early in his career. Boucher felt the time was right to let Connolly blossom on expert tutelage of his seasoned stars. And both of those players have liked what they've seen so far. "He's playing great," Lecavalier said. "He's definitely a great hockey player. He's learning every game. He's getting better every game. And we're getting to know each other, too. I've been playing with Marty for 10 years, but Brett Connolly and I have been playing together for five games. There's a transition in learning where each of us are on the ice, but we communicate very well together and it makes it a lot better when we got out there and play the games." Lecavalier was thrilled for Connolly after scoring his first career goal. "That was huge," he said. "You want to get that first one out of the way. It was a great goal and I'm happy he got it. He's just going to get better and better." Added St. Louis: "He's a young guy and it's hard to jump right in, but getting his first goal I think will help him. He's mature for his age. At that age, it's about finding your rhythm and getting consistency. And he's doing that. He's a strong kid with good speed, and he goes to his area and battles hard." Connolly might have been the first overall pick, according to Boucher, if not for an injury in 2010. He hurt his hip flexor with Prince George and wound up playing in just 16 games. That followed a year in which he scored 30 goals with 35 assists for the Cougars in 65 games during the 2008-09 season, making him the first 16-year-old to notch 30 goals in the WHL since Patrick Marleau in 1995-96. "When you miss pretty much a whole season, it's never fun," Connolly said. "It was frustrating. But everything happens for a reason." As it was, the Lightning snatched him up with the sixth overall pick, and the investment is starting to pay dividends. Connolly is enjoying the ride -- on the ice, and in his new car. He recently tweeted to his followers that he'd purchased a new set of wheels: a Range Rover. "You have fun with it on Twitter -- you let the fans know what you're thinking," he said. "It's a fun way to interact." But his most enjoyable interaction these days comes on the line with two Lightning greats. He's starting to make a name for himself as he goes.
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