Jon Cooper on Brett Connolly: ‘He’s Becoming A Bona Fide NHL Player’

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BOSTON — The Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning will play at TD Garden on Thursday night without their top acquisitions from the NHL trade deadline.

The Lightning are without top-four defenseman Braydon Coburn, who has a lower body injury. He was acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers for a 2015 first-round pick, a 2015 third-round pick and defenseman Radko Gudas.

The Bruins also don’t have right winger Brett Connolly, whom they acquired from the Lightning for second-round draft picks in 2015 and 2016. Connolly has a fractured right index finger and is expected to return around the end of the regular season on April 11.

“(Connolly) wasn’t traded for Coburn, but it was all part of one plan together,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said Thursday. “So I’ll always link those two together even though they went to different teams.

“It’s tough when you lose young guys who are up-and coming and have a lot of potential to be good players in the league. But to move somebody out, you’re bringing somebody in. It was just a fit for our team, and we have a surplus of forwards that we could afford (to move someone). We got to protect our future a little bit as well.

“Boston’s getting a kid who can put the puck in the net, and he’s worked really hard to get here. Especially, his first year he spent in the NHL and then he had to find himself in the minors for a couple of years, so he’s kind of fought through it, fought his way. If he stalled a little bit with us, I think going to a new team was going to be a fresh start for him.”

As the sixth overall selection in the 2010 NHL draft, there was a lot of pressure on Connolly to develop into an impact player. It’s taken Connolly a bit longer than other players from that draft year to establish himself at the NHL level, but he’s finally starting to develop the quality offensive skills he displayed in the WHL.

“A lot of the players that come in, especially the guys who are drafted really high, the expectations are so high. … Sometimes the weight of (expectations) can wear on guys and you expect a little bit more from them,” Cooper said. “(Connolly) had to learn the NHL, like a lot of these guys. They don’t realize how big, strong and fast the league is, and how much you have to think your way around the ice. You can’t just go a million miles per hour and expect things to happen. I think that’s the biggest issue young guys have. They have to learn the league, and once you start learning the league, you start coming into your own, and I think that’s the biggest thing for Brett this year, he’s slowly starting to learn the league. He’s becoming a bona fide NHL player. Could Brett Connolly have garnered two (second-round) picks last year, I don’t think so. But the way he’s progressed, you have to pay a high price for him.”

Learning the speed and physical demands of the NHL game also has allowed Connolly to become a better two-way player and someone who can take on tough defensive assignments without putting the team in a vulnerable position.

“The one thing we were finding out about Brett was, the defensive part of the ice he was starting to figure out,” Cooper said. “So we kind of had him in that role, but also someone who could put the puck in the net.

“I can’t say enough good things about him. I wish him the best. … He needed a fresh start and he’s going to get one in a great organization.”

Connolly adds skill, speed to Bruins lineup>>

Thumbnail photo via Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports Images

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