Brett Connolly was frustrated how poorly things went for him this season in Florida.
When the 28-year-old forward finally got his first chance for a new team — with the Blackhawks on Monday against the Blue Jackets — he took out that frustration in a productive way, scoring an important third-period go-ahead goal.
“It wasn’t working, but that’s in the past,” Connolly said. “I knew I was going to go somewhere else and I’ve been working hard to be ready for that opportunity. Here I am. I’m ready to be a big factor on this team, as I know I can. I’ve proven it in the past. I’ve won before.”
Connolly and defenseman Riley Stillman both made their Hawks debuts Monday while forward Vinnie Hinostroza played the fourth game of his second career stint with the Hawks.
All three were technically teammates earlier this season, too, but played only 38 games combined for the Panthers. They’re all hoping for bigger roles with the Hawks, and so far are earning those. Coach Jeremy Colliton has been pleased.
“[Connolly] gave us some good shifts,” Colliton said Monday. “[He’s a] big body who is comfortable on the puck and not afraid to go into traffic. He has a heavy shot. It’s easy to see why he’s produced in the past.”
“Stillman was very physical. He was active. He got stops for us. He was jumping in the play. I asked him to pull back a little bit, but he did some good stuff out there.”
Hinostroza, who is now into his second week practicing and playing with the Hawks — making him the elder statesman of the three acquisitions from Florida — has slid in seamlessly onto a line with Philipp Kurashev and Dominik Kubalik.
The Chicago native has tallied two assists in his four games, seen his usage rise from nine to 11 to 13 minutes and made his elite speed and skating ability noticeable.
He has generated strong underlying possession numbers: shot attempts favor the Hawks 49-35 and scoring chances favor the Hawks 23-19 during his five-on-five ice time.
“Sometimes with chemistry, it takes a while to get it, [but] with some guys, your games match up well together and you happen to find each other and think the same way,” Hinostroza said. “With Phil and ‘Kuby,’ we’ve been working hard. Our main focus has been trying to get pucks back and win battles, because some of our chances have been off turnovers from their ‘D.’”
Connolly was also well above average analytically Monday, leading the team with a 5-1 on-ice scoring chance ratio (shot attempts were 11-6) in addition to his goal during 13:05 of ice time.
The Hawks acquired Connolly as a negative-value contract — he has a $3.5 million cap hit through 2023 — that allowed them to also receive prospect Henrik Borgstrom, but they’d love if he could reestablish himself a positive-value player.
“He has a great shot,” general manager Stan Bowman said. “He’s a goal scorer. He’s one of those guys that doesn’t need a lot of opportunities.”
Connolly had scored at least 15 goals each of the past four seasons, including a career-high 22 with the Capitals in 2018-19, before falling off this year. His career 14.2% shooting percentage ranks 11th among all active players with at least 500 NHL appearances.
And so far with the Hawks, he’s shooting 50%.
“I’ve played 500-plus games now; it’s been a journey,” he said. “If I can get my game going like it was the start of last year and in Washington, when I was playing my best hockey, I feel like I can help out. [I’m] just looking to help the depth and score some timely goals.”