There is no doubt my own views on Connolly were not the best, right from the get-go when the organization announced he had signed a two-year UFA deal in the summer of 2011. Why? Well, it was clear he was not a first or even second or third choice as a major free-agent acquisition for the blue and white that summer. Too, I had seen for myself that his work with the Sabres had drifted somewhat in his final season there. Throw in the fact that I heard loud and clear through Buffalo media (who felt he was done) and the team’s fan base that his departure was in fact welcomed and also that the organization did not seem to care a bit that he was leaving—and I just wondered if this was a guy who could deliver what the Leafs needed a season ago.
While we can make some excuses for what transpired, the truth is, Connolly did not, in fact, deliver anything near what many Leaf fans thought—and hoped—that he would. Maybe there were good reasons, I don’t know. Some thought he would be an injury waiting to happen, in light of the serious concussion issues that he had endured during his time with the Sabres.
But the problem was not so much injuries as that he simply did not earn the ice the brass thought he would. Penciled in early on as a first-line center, he slid over time well down the line-up. His minutes dropped, and while he killed penalties and contributed here and there, I don’t think even his staunchest supporters would try to claim he had a good year with the Leafs—much less a stellar initial season in our colours.
Just in terms of superficial “numbers”, it was not vintage Connolly. He put up 36 points in 70 games with Toronto, and was a minus 14.
Now, to provide some context, the guy has never been a true first-line goal-scoring center. He was always more of a slick playmaker type in his hey-day with the Sabres, a guy that I admired because he had grown his game nicely since he was acquired by Buffalo after being a high draft pick of the Islanders in 1999. (He was the centerpiece of the deal that sent Mike Pecca to New York.) Interestingly, he has never even scored 20 goals in any one NHL season, though he has had some big “assist” seasons despite a slew of injuries over the years. In fact, as recently as 2009-’10, he notched 48 assists in 73 games for Buffalo. That’s pretty good.
This past season, though, he was not that player. Was he given a fair shot? I think so. Was he the reason the Leafs didn’t make the playoffs? No, he wasn’t. But I will say this: for a guy who signed a big money contract, he didn’t help us get there, either.
So I can’t help but wonder what is left in the young man’s tank. I say young man, because he won’t turn 32 until May. He’s not over the hill, age-wise. He should be, ideally, the very kind of frontline, experienced, playoff-tested veteran who can contribute not only on the ice but off the ice as well, to help bring along the many youngsters on this (hopefully) improving Leafs roster.
Can he rebound? Can he play like he did three seasons ago in Buffalo? Or will he continue to be the player that left Sabre fans unconcerned about his departure in the summer of 2011? And similarly left Leaf observers, after the 2011-’12 season, wondering exactly why we bothered to sign the guy in the first place.
For me, I can’t help but think that part of the answer lies in whether Connolly himself believes he has to have a rebound season. If he as convinced himself he was just fine last season, and the problem was that he was given a raw deal here, then I don’t hold out much hope that he will have a strong season.
If, on the other hand, he sees the writing on the wall and recognizes that, if guaranteed contracts and a cap were not stumbling blocks to the organization, he would likely be gone by now, then maybe there’s hope. If he admits to himself that he faces the end of his career with free-agency looming if he doesn’t have a decent year in 2012-’13—I can see him climbing back up the hill, at least somewhat. Yes, potential injuries are a concern, as is roster competition, but he is still the most experienced guy here. And, if he plays like he did several seasons ago, he is also one of most highly skilled players on this roster.
Will be ever be a high scoring guy again? Will be evolve in a super high-end defensive specialist/penalty killer (which he was, to a degree, in Buffalo)? Will he still be a Maple Leaf in six months?
So what will Connolly be? Which direction is this going?
What do you think?