Connolly, 29, tallied just two points (one goal, one assist) in 10 games for the Blackhawks last season after being acquired from the Florida Panthers.
The Chicago Blackhawks made several roster moves on Sunday afternoon following their heart-breaking 5-4 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Reese Johnson — who suffered a broken clavicle in Saturday’s contest — was placed on injured reserve, while Mike Hardman was reassigned to the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League.
With two spots available on their active roster, the Blackhawks decided to recall forward MacKenzie Entwistle, along with veteran journeyman Brett Connolly.
A former Stanley Cup champion with the Washington Capitals in 2018, Connolly has a history of being a valuable bottom-six goal scorer but wasn’t able to crack the Hawks opening-night roster out of training camp. With several younger and much-cheaper options up front heading into the season, Connolly never received much of an opportunity and was buried in Rockford to save the club roughly $1.25 million of his expensive $3.5 million cap hit.
“I’ve had some experience going down when maybe you think that you shouldn’t have,” Connolly said in an interview on Monday. “But I definitely was not going to be that guy that went down there. It’s not my personality.”
Connolly could have sulked over being sent to the AHL for the first time since 2014, but instead, the former first-round pick kept a positive attitude and decided to do everything in his power to find a way back to the big leagues.
“I just wanted to go down [to Rockford] and work my ass off and get back up here and be a positive influence on those guys, and try to be the best player every night.”
For the bulk of his time with the IceHogs, Connolly teamed up with top prospects Lukas Reichel and Alex Nylander to create an unexpectedly-productive first line. Prior to Reichel and Connolly suffering injuries on back-to-back days late in November, the two ranked first and second, respectively, in points among all IceHogs’ players. Reichel led the team with 12 points in 13 games, while Connolly was right behind him with 11 points in 15 games.
With Connolly finding his game in Rockford, plus, the Blackhawks being quite desperate for goal scoring, the 10-year veteran returned to the NHL on Sunday, looking to make the most of the next opportunity ahead of him.
“I knew things were going to change, and I just had to stay positive, keep working, and get ready for the next opportunity,” Connolly said. “Because things happen so fast in this game and people are watching every night.”
In 527 career NHL games, Connolly has recorded 101 goals along with 93 assists for 194 points between the Tampa Bay Lightning (2011-15), Boston Bruins (2015-16), Capitals (2016-19), Florida Panthers (2019-2021), and Blackhawks (2021-). Connolly also ranks 12th among all active NHL players (500+ games) with a 14.0% shooting percentage on his career, which could certainly help a Hawks team that’s currently well below the league average (Blackhawks: 7.8%, NHL Average: 9.3%).
During practice on Tuesday morning, interim coach Derek King — who coached Connolly earlier this year with the IceHogs — placed him on the Blackhawks’ second line with Brandon Hagel and Jonathan Toews. Connolly also received looks in the bumper role with both the first and second power-play units, indicating that he’ll be used in some capacity with a man advantage.
Connolly put together a dreadful 2021 season, mustering up just six points (three goals, three assists) in 31 games between the Panthers and Hawks, which certainly aided in his descend to the minors. However, before the COVID-19 outbreak in March of 2020, Connolly was rolling in Florida with 33 points (19 goals, 14 assists) in 69 games. Connolly also netted a career-best 22 goals during the 2018-19 season with Washington. Just a few years ago, the Campbell River, British Columbia native, was considered to be a top depth forward in the entire league.
Connolly is now back up for his second stint in Chicago with the hope of never returning to the minor leagues. With a potential opportunity in the top-six forward group — as well as on the powerplay — Connolly feels that he can make an immediate impact for a reeling Blackhawks offense.
“You just have to believe in yourself.”