There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Watch the Washington Capitals whiz around the ice during practice at MedStar Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, and two things quickly become apparent: These guys shoot the puck extremely fast, and one player appears to shoot it faster than anyone else.
It’s not Alex Ovechkin. With over 650 goals in his NHL career, the big Russian can certainly smack the puck. But the fastest shot belongs to a slim, unassuming forward named Brett Connolly.
The 26-year-old Canadian winger stands 6-foot-3 and weighs just 195 pounds. Yet since he joined the Capitals in 2016, only two players in the NHL have posted a higher shooting percentage than Connolly. He scored his 17th goal of the season and his 36th point on March 6 against Philadelphia, both new career-highs. His shooting percentage since arriving in Washington is 17.4 percent, nearly twice as accurate as the NHL league average of 9.5 percent.
“Ever since he first got here, I recognized it right away,” Caps goaltender Braden Holtby tells City Paper after a recent practice. In Holtby’s mind, only one other Capitals player comes close to having a shot like Connolly’s.
“Aside from when Ovi shoots, he’s definitely the hardest guy to stop,” he says.
In D.C., Connolly is mostly a role player. He skates primarily on the third line, and his $1.5 million annual salary makes him just the ninth highest paid forward on the team.
But entering junior hockey in 2008, Connolly was the talk of the town in Prince George, British Columbia.
“He was a local kid, so that made it extra special. And when I got there, I already knew, there was no question about it: ‘You have to give Connolly plenty of ice time,’” says Dean Clark, former head coach of the Western Hockey League’s Prince George Cougars.
The year before the Cougars hired Clark, a 16-year-old Connolly had scored 30 goals and 60 points in 65 games, tying the WHL rookie record set by Patrick Marleau in 1996 and winning the Canadian Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year award as the best 16-year-old player in Canada.
Clark recalls thinking Connolly looked like “a stick” when he first met him. But an offseason team bonding exercise that first summer in Prince George convinced Clark of Connolly’s power.
“We went to a baseball diamond to play a game of slow-pitch softball,” Clark says. “Well, Connolly gets up, and he cranks a home-run clear over the fence. And I’m thinking, ‘How do you generate that kind of power at 16 or 17, to blast a softball out of a baseball field?’”
Connolly’s shot has always set him apart.
“That was my strength. Even at 15, 16 years old, I tried to use that as much as I could,” Connolly says.
“He’s always had the shot,” Clark agrees. “Great shot. To have the ability and the mechanics to rip a shot like that, he’s special.”
After just three seasons in Prince George, the Tampa Bay Lightning had seen enough. They selected Connolly with the sixth overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft.
Depending on whom you ask, Connolly’s time in Tampa was marred by an unfortunate combination of injuries, roster depth in front of him, and controversial decisions to send him down to Syracuse, Tampa’s American Hockey League affiliate, three different times. The Lightning eventually traded Connolly to Boston after three and a half disappointing years. Connolly scored just nine goals in 76 games for the Bruins before being allowed to hit the free agent market in 2016.
That’s when general manager Brian MacLellan and the Capitals signed Connolly to a one-year, $850,000 contract, and offered the potential bust a chance to prove himself.
“To me, that’s what it’s all about. Earning and deserving that chance,” Capitals head coach Todd Reirden says. “When you put him in situations and give him opportunities, he’s taken advantage of them.”
With a shooting percentage like Connolly’s, sometimes you only need one shot. And that season, Connolly posted a career-high 15 goals on an 18.5 percent shooting percentage. The Capitals re-signed him that summer to a two-year deal worth $1.5 million per year, the biggest contract of his career. The following season, Connolly posted another 15 goals and a career-high 27 points on a 22.4 percent shooting percentage. And so far this season, he’s amassed 17 goals and 36 points while shooting 14.7 percent.
“We talked about how this could be a great year for him. He’s a player that does well with confidence—in himself, and that his teammates have confidence in him,” Reirden says. “He gets himself into good situations, and with his shot, he’s bound to convert when he gets those chances.”
What makes Connolly’s shot so hard to stop? Look to his quick release.
“He shoots the puck really fast. A lot of guys, when they get a puck for a one-timer, they line up [first] and then go for it. He kind of just have a really short swing,” explains Capitals winger Andre Burakovsky, Connolly’s linemate for most of this season and last year’s run to the Stanley Cup. “Always when I play with him, I want him to shoot more. I’m always trying to give him the puck as much as possible because I know he can really fire it.”
“It’s the quickness of it,” adds Holtby. “He doesn’t need to wind up or anything. It’s just on and off the stick in a split second. Just very, very efficient.”
Chandler Stephenson, the 24-year-old Washington center, believes deception is key: “He doesn’t show a lot when he’s going to shoot. He’s not gripping his stick as hard as he can. He’s deceiving them with his shot, and that fools goalies. He’s got that fast-twitch that can get the shot off quick and surprise them.”
But Clark doesn’t think Connolly is relying on trickery. Having worked with him up close, Clark cites his technique.
“Somehow, he generates power through his hips and the mechanics of what he does. There’s some technique he’s doing that’s allowing him to get his shot off quicker, that’s different than the majority of people,” the coach says. “With the way he’s able to shoot the puck, one shot can change the game.”
A player can keep their shooting percentage high two ways: by creating more goals or turning down more shots. Connolly believes he’s more selective than other players about when to pull the trigger.
“If there’s a better [than even] chance that I’m not going to score, I’m not just going to waste a shot,” he says. “There’s no point in just throwing it into the goalie when there’s no traffic. So you kind of select when you’re going to shoot it, and when you’re going to make a different play.”
And while his teammates might understand the logic of it, it has been driving Connolly’s coaches crazy for over a decade.
“I always wanted him to shoot more in juniors. He’d have a quality scoring chance, but he’d want to get to a better-than-that scoring chance,” Clark says. “And I’m thinking, ‘Why would you pass that up?’”
Reirden agrees: “If he’s going to continue to have that shooting percentage, then I want him to continue shooting!”
But Connolly, at least in D.C., guards his shots with caution for good reason. He remembers Boston, Tampa Bay, Syracuse, and Prince George. He remembers the draft, and the word “bust.” And he remembers wondering if he’d ever get another shot in the NHL. So when the Capitals signed him to be a third-line winger and to find ways to contribute while getting just over 12 minutes of ice time per game, Connolly understood that he had a new role on this team.
“Right now and the last three years, it’s kind of been my role to capitalize on limited ice time and limited chances, and try to chip in as much as I can,” he says. “With my current role on the team, I probably only get one or two chances a game, so I want to take advantage of them when I get those.“
Clark, watching Connolly from afar and recalling his days in Prince George, says having a limited role can be challenging. “Even as a 17-year-old, the team kind of revolved around him. Guys looked up to him. He was the guy that everyone really respected. Everything gravitated around Conno,” he reflects. “Such a different role in Washington must be a little tough for him to [accept].”
Connolly won’t say that. Not aloud, anyway.
“Everybody wants more. Everybody wants to increase their role. That’s how we’re built,” he says. “When you’re in a position to shoot, you want to score.”
“I’ve been able to do that in Washington a little bit. It’s been good here.”