The minutes played by Tampa Bay Lightning rookie Brett Connolly have declined dramatically since he returned from the World Junior Championship. He has played more than 10 minutes only once in his past 10 games and Tuesday against the Capitals played a season-low 5:08.
Speculation about what the Lightning might do with Connolly -- send him back to junior, bench him for a game or two so he can watch from the press box -- has been circulating. But general manager Steve Yzerman said Connolly, 19, whose average ice time is down to 11:20, "at this time" is not a candidate to be sent to Tri-City of the junior Western league.
NHL teams have until the Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline to send out their junior-eligible players so they can participate in junior-league playoffs.
"He has to keep working away to earn his ice time," Yzerman said. "Is he better off (in junior)? We made a decision at the beginning of the year that he's better off here."
There is one wrinkle to that. If the Lightning falls out of the playoff mix, Tampa Bay could send Connolly to Tri-City. When that team's playoffs are done, Connolly could then be sent to AHL Norfolk, where, truth be told, he probably belongs. In fact, Yzerman said it is worth exploring an exception to the rule that allows junior-eligible players with three years of junior experience to play in the AHL.
"We talk about it all the time," Yzerman said. "We would like to have, particularly guys who have played three years in junior that when we feel it's time to go to another level, we'd rather see them in the American League."
"I'd like to see us talk further about it," Yzerman added. "We're not trying to raid junior hockey, but we look at Brett, he's played in junior hockey for three years. Part of the reason we wanted to keep him is we felt like it was time to ply against stronger competition and a higher pace. Junior hockey is good, but he's had three full years."
As for Connolly, who has four goals and eight points in 38 games but zero points in his past 16, he admitted, "I have to get better in my defensive end."
"It's a work in progress," he said. "It's a matter of me getting better as a hockey player. If that means I have to play on the fourth line and not play as much and focus on the D zone, that's that."
As for perhaps sitting out a game or two, as Steven Stamkos did in his rookie season, Connolly said, "You never want that to happen. But at the end of the day that's out of my control. All I can do is play the way I know I can play. I have to focus on what I need to do to improve."
"He's eventually going to be one of those great skill players who has the grit," coach Guy Boucher said, "but is also going to be reliable defensively."