Connolly grew up in Prince George, British Columbia, and was drafted by his hometown Cougars 10th overall in the 2007 WHL Bantam draft. He made his WHL debut as a 15-year-old for the Cougars, playing in four games. As a 16-year-old, Connolly was one of the brightest young stars in Canadian juniors, earning WHL and CHL rookie of the year honors after becoming the first 16-year-old to score 30 goals in the WHL since Patrick Marleau. At 16 he frequently played on the same line as Lightning draftee Dana Tyrell before Tyrell suffered a knee injury. Tyrell’s first point of his final junior season was an assist earned on Connolly’s second career WHL goal.
Connolly had two hat tricks in his rookie year, November 1 vs. Kamloops and February 13 vs. Chilliwack.
Connolly’s draft year was marred by hip injuries that limited him to 16 games. He managed 10 goals and nine assists in those games, including a hat trick vs. Chilliwack in September.
Once thought to be a top-3 pick, he “fell” to No.6 overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, where he was taken by the Lightning.
He appeared in two preseason games with Tampa Bay prior to the 2010-2011 season, going scoreless with a minus-1 rating and two penalty minutes.
Re-assigned to Prince George, Connolly was named captain of the Cougars for the season and earned at least a point in his first 14 games, including one stretch where he scored at least two goals in four out of five games. He had 11 two-goal games, but never any hat tricks on his way to 46 goals in 59 games – good enough for third in the league.
Connolly would have hit the 50-goal mark if not for two prolonged absences from his Cougars squad. The first, he was named to Team Canada for the World Junior Championships, a great honor for any young Canadian. Connolly earned three assists in seven games as Canada took home the silver. Connolly played mostly a third or fourth line role in the tournament.
The second absence came when he suffered a knee injury against Chilliwack January 12. He was expected to miss a month, but came back two weeks later and had a career best four points (two goals and two assists) in a win over Kamloops. He was a career worst minus-5 the following game vs. Kelowna, however.
The quick recovery from a knee injury would have gone a long way to prove he was not “injury prone,” but in the Cougars’ first playoff game against Kelowna he was hit into the boards awkwardly and separated his shoulder. The Cougars were swept in the series without him. Reports later said Connolly could have played had the Cougars advanced.
Connolly was invited to Canada’s national team development camp in the summer of 2011 and fared well, but again scared his fans when he was tripped in a scrimmage, hurt his leg, and was helped off the ice. It turned out to be a bad bruise and he played in both the Red vs. White games in the days that followed. He did not score in either contest.
As one of the few returning players from Canada’s 2011 world junior club, Connolly is expected to make the team and be one of its leaders.