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Tim Connolly: still a potential key guy or just taking up space?

For me, the most impressive thing the Jets did on Tuesday night against the Leafs was the way they played in the final 60 seconds.  You don't often see a team bottle up the opposition the way they did, while "protecting" a one-goal lead.  The Leafs couldn't get the puck out of their own zone, much less set up in the Winnipeg zone.

A few quick thoughts:
  • Winnipeg is one of those teams that is a classic "homer"- so much better at home than on the road.  Those that follow the team closely could no doubt explain why much better than I can.
  • Kessel continued his tremendous season, with his 30th goal to open the scoring in the first period.  I've been talking all season about Kessel using his off-wing to create different looks for defensemen to contend with.  That first-period goal was a great example of how he can fly in at full speed on that off-wing, cut into the middle and release a shot that is so hard to pick up.  Great stuff.
  • That was some move by Joey Crabb when he set up Lombardi after jumping out of the penalty box with about four minutes to go in the game.  I can't describe it, but it was slick....
  • Monster?  He made some key saves in the third period, but I'm sure people will focus on the Jets' first goal.  I guess he overplayed that one but it was a heck of a backhand, too, I thought.  And Schenn did not exactly  make it hard for the goal-scorer.  (I'll say this, though.  We are way, way more analytical and critical these days than thirty and forty years ago.  Nowadays, we micro-asssess everything, and I'm not just talking about "Corsi" and "Fenwick" and all these sometimes useful modern-day statistics.  I mean so many of us, as fans, parse every play and if we could make it happen, guys would get cut or traded in the middle of a game.  There are so many replays, so many angles, middle-of-the-period "hot stove" chats that break down every little "mistake"...Sometimes we have to accept that these guys aren't perfect and the other team is trying to make a play, too.)
  • One more thing:  let's not blame the travel or the back-to-back.  If we check the Leafs schedule lately, they've generally had plenty of time between games and some of their opponents have had tough back-to-backs.  That's life in professional hockey.  Sometimes there doesn't have to be an excuse.  Teams just lose sometimes, and that's OK.

I have to admit to a certain bias right off the top.  I listen to a fair bit of Buffalo sports talk radio and I enjoy the afternoon show on WGR.  Have for years.  Why?  Well, the two guys “talking sports” (almost exclusively the Sabres and the Bills) don't pretend to be sports “journalists”, experts or “insiders”.  They are simply two experienced broadcasters whose job it is to talk about the local major-league teams, and I like what they bring to the show most days.  They’re fans, more than anything else—simply a bit more informed in some cases, perhaps, than those who don’t follow their local teams for a living.  (It almost reminds me of the ground-breaking sports "talk" show that really turned me on to that medium back in about 1970, the original WBZ "Sports Huddle" show.  It was just three or four guys from different walks of life talking about the Bruins, the Red Sox, Celtics, etc....They weren't journalists.  They were just opinionated individuals who could be irreverent, funny, insightful.  It was great stuff, listening on my Dad's tiny, broken down, crackling old radio...)

So when I speak today about Maple Leaf center Tim Connolly, I am keenly aware that I have no doubt been influenced by the tone and tenor of the Buffalo sports talk show hosts (and the views expressed by—and sometimes spewing from—the Buffalo-based callers last season) when it came to Connolly.  The view from the “cheap seats” with regard to the veteran forward was overwhelmingly, well…not positive.  Most observers seemed to see him as a guy well past his due date, though he was not necessarily old in hockey terms, of course.  But he was portrayed as  largely ineffective and un-involved.

When he signed with the Maple Leafs as a "back-up" plan free-agent this past summer, there was the usual buzz and hopeful sentiment that arises whenever the Leafs make a move.  People remembered the good years Connolly had in Buffalo and rationalized the rather large amount that it cost the Leafs (and their cap allowance) by saying, well, if things don’t pan out, it’s only for two years.

The people in Buffalo—fans and media folks alike—could not have been less concerned that Connolly left for nothing.  They just wanted him gone, it seemed.  Management certainly didn’t criticize him on his way out the door, but their lack of interest in bringing him back also appeared to speak volumes.

In any event, the former Islander high draft pick (I remember when the Sabres picked him up…the Peca deal, right?) is a guy I really liked as he developed in his early years with the Sabres.  He wasn’t exactly Milan Lucic in terms of physical play but most guys aren’t, right? He seemed to make his wingers better and certainly put up some points while also developing into a reassonably proficient penalty-killer throughout his Buffalo years.

Of course, he came to town with the unfortunate burden of some serious injuries in his past, so Leaf enthusiasts were naturally apprehensive about where things stood in that regard.  When the season opened and Connolly was on the injured list, you could pretty much hear the exasperation and sense of, “well, here we go again…”.

Now, in fairness, while he was sometimes not entirely prominent in his early (when healthy and in the line-up) days with the Leafs, he also went through a period where he certainly contributed.  We saw the sweet hands, for sure.  While he never sparked (even way back in the early days of training camp) with his then projected top line wingers (Lupul and Kessel), Connolly at least made his presence felt some nights.

Now of late, he is buried a bit on the third line many nights.  Are we seeing Connolly at his best?  I don’t think so.  Is he playing with an injury?  He may well be.  So I’m loathe to cast a definitive assessment as to what he is delivering these days without really knowing what's going on behind the scenes. And just maybe he needs to be playing with linemates who can take better advantage of his vision and good hands. (That was in evidence in the second period in Winnipeg, with the Leafs trailing at the time by a score of 2-1.  Connolly fed a perfect pass to an open winger that could easily have resulted in a Leaf goal- and a well-deserved assist for Connolly.)

But given that the Leafs have been back to some pretty heady play of late, and fans are for the most part happy with how the team is playing—from the goal on out, it’s maybe a fair time to mention that one name that doesn’t seem to come up in conversation very often is that of Tim Connolly.

I guess what I’m wondering is this:  does Connolly still have a lot in the tank, and will we begin to see it on a more consistent basis down the stretch and into the playoffs?  Or, is he this year’s Kris Versteeg—a Burke acquisition that seemed like a good idea at the time, but something the organization would in fact un-do if it had the chance?

Of course we have no idea what the brass is really thinking.  We’ll never hear so publicly, at least.

Here’s something I never really focused on until looking at it recently.  Connolly has never scored 20 goals in an NHL season.  (That takes into account 10 years when he played at least half the season.)  Now, he’s had more than 30 assists in a year five times, which is more what you would expect from a front-line (“top-six”, if you will) center.  And generally speaking, last season aside, he has been a “plus” player in recent years for the Sabres.

So where are we right now?  Well, he’s playing on average about 17 minutes a night.  He takes very few penalties so he doesn’t cost the team that way.  In terms of basic stats, everyone knows his numbers (7 goals, 18 assists in 43 games so far this season).

My concern or focus, though, is not so much on his “numbers” as what I’m actually seeing.  I’m not expecting a dogged, determined guy on every shift every night.  But for, what is it, more than 4 million a season (in what is an “opportunity” year for him—a year to prove he still “has it”) I’m not sure I’m quite seeing “it”.

Will we see it?  Is there a lot more in that tank?  I’m thinking there has to be.  But at the moment, if I was an NHL General Manager, I would not give up anything up for Connolly in a trade, maybe not even a 5th round draft choice—because, you never know what even a late-round draft choice might become.

Right now, though, are we seeing what Tim Connolly is?


  1. Funny Connolly should be your topic today. Itr's been difficult o know what to make of him this year. He lacks the speed and exuberance of Bozak or Grabovski, and has looked out of place with the 1st and 2nd line wingers. I've been feeling that that third line has been the only one that feels patched together - the players don't feel as if they're on the same page. But last night Connolly set Lombardi up with a sweet pass, and it occurred to me that we've seen that a number of times recently. That line is starting to generate chances pretty consistently, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them start putting some points up over the last 30 games.
    I'd say there's no question Connolly hasn't lived up to the (perhaps unjustified) hype. We thought we were getting a #1 center, but the chemistry wasn't there. As it turns out, we don't need him to play that role. Ultimately, we need a solid 3rd line that holds the fort and can score when the opportunity is there. I'm beginning to think Connolly's value will be in that realm.

  2. As I alluded to on PPP today, I think Connolly is an obstacle in re-signing Grabovski, and subsequently, calling up Colborne for next season. I have no doubt Colborne can match the expected production of Connolly. Of note, 15 of his 25 points have come from playing with Kessel or Lupul, and since Bozak's return from IR he has but 2 points in 10 games playing on the 3rd line.

    Were I Burke, I'd be trying to dump Connolly for anything I could get, even the fabled future considerations, to a playoff/bubble team with injuries down the middle. I'm looking at you Washington.

  3. Indeed Gerund O', this is what still sort of complicates things for me as well. He has always had those sweet skills. I guess my question is: will he "happily" accept a third-line role going forward?

  4. SkinnyFish...I hear you. One question I would have for myself is, can Colborne come up and produce as a third-line checker in the NHL playoffs (better than Connolly)? Maybe the answer is yes, though I don't have any feeling for that. Whether another team would want Connolly for the "stretch drive" and playoffs and thus take on his cap hit for next season, again, I don't know. (And that would mean BB wants to/is willing to move Connolly..)

    All these tiny complications....

  5. Yeah I wrote about Connolly myself the other day on THW.

    Surprisingly his numbers are not far off Richards', and the cap is much better.

    Bozak, Grabovski, Connolly, Lombardi, Steckel. We have 5 centres, all of whom can do the 2nd-4th line duties, but no one who can legitimately claim first-line status. Of these, I think we see Grabbo is the best of them offensively, Bozak has some flash and meshes well with his linemates. Steckel is more suited to the 4th line.

    It leaves Lombo and Connolly. It's hard for me not to feel like I like Lombardi, I am disappointed in Connolly. And that bias comes from 2 sources:
    Lombardi was a guy we took a flier on... coming off concussion, unexpected trade, got rid of Lebda, get back a young defender and oh hey, this pretty good veteran forward.
    Connolly is plan B... signed to a 2 year contract at $4.75M per, to centre the first line, and starts season injured, has no chemistry with Phil and Joffrey, now playing 3rd line minutes.

    I also agree, Connolly now seems to complicate allocating money going forward. How do you keep Connolly, Lombardi, and the rest, AND resign Grabovski and Kulemin (which I assume they will try to do).

    Of course, if Connolly was on the top line and on pace for 70 points, no discussion. He'd be a decent signing, he'd be more than 'serviceable'.

    He's not effective enough being a 3rd line guy. Not at that price. There's lots of sort-of-nifty, 40-50 point guys out there. If the 3rd line isn't potting a goal every 2nd or 3rd game, then 'Connolly the playmaker' isn't making many plays, is he? He doesn't hit, he isn't a stellar checker. Sure, he made a nifty pass last night that could have been a goal... not sure I've heard his name mentioned really since his hot streak earlier in January.

    I don't have a hate on for the guy... but he makes far too much for his contribution. I don't see him as a leader, and he's not producing. If Burke can find a way to make a deal, a la Jason Blake, Brett Lebda or Francois Beauchemin, he should do it between now and next training camp.

  6. Really well said, Mark, as always. You make the point well about where Connolly fits in TO, at least so far. And you're absolutely right (and as SkinnyFish also noted here and on PPP) that Connolly sort of complicates the cap issue....

    Funny, I like Lombardi too, but I am struggling to "accept" him, maybe for reasons that aren't entirely fair. I know we have to take into account he has come off significant injuries and time away. It's just that, again, when you're looking at a third and fourth-line performer, I guess, in this day and age, I expect to see more absolute grit and determination at both ends of the ice. Lombardi can fly and do some sweet things, but....well, I just don't know. Again, maybe not fair on my part. Great post, thanks Mark.

  7. A disclaimer: Owing to some arcane territorial broadcast rules I was not able to get last night’s game on regular TV. Somehow, at this point in the season an evening of hanging drywall appealed to me more than a fuzzy grey area internet broadcast of ghostly players chasing an invisible puck. (HD has spoiled me forever.) I understand that the Monster played well. The weak goal looked to be caused by two problems I have noted in the past – a tendency to favor the inside post and dropping to the butterfly when standing up would have been the better option. If he is in the correct position on that goal there is virtually nothing for the shooter to shoot at. We should remember that he has battled and defeated those tendencies in the past. So, we should not be concerned.

    Tim Connolly is not a liability. Whereas there seems to be an expectation for endless highlight reel flash, he seems to me quietly effective, putting up decent points, while maintaining a plus average with steady conscientious play. Whereas his style and demeanor, even his unique facial expression of perpetual ennui, could be interpreted as indifferent, I do not believe that he is. Of course, I understand that his supple hands and head for playmaking make observers want more. For some reason, I do not think that his wingers have done well by him. I have a general impression of players consistently whiffing on imaginative Connolly feeds. It could be, like Kadri, that his creativity is out of step with the players around him. In my opinion, to diss Connolly at this point would be unseemly. I hope that fans can keep their eyes on the positives at this point in the season and refrain from inventing goat horns, for the simple lack of anything tangible to complain about. Then again, he is, frankly, an enigma. I appreciate the more sophisticated positions of Gerund and Skinny. Where does he fit in with the current squad moving forward? Is he an effective third line player, or a something of an obstacle to the development of Joe Colborne, or even Nazem Kadri for that matter?

  8. To me Connolly is what he is. A suprisingly good defensive player, sublime passing skills good skating but somehow the whole leaves you wanting more. Not a bad player but one who would thrive in a smaller market where hockey is not the numkber one team.

    The fact that he is on the third line speaks more to Bozak having such a good season. Connolly was brought in as a stop gap till Colbourne was ready and as a potential replacement for Grabovski. Unfortunately, Bozak, Colbourne and Grabovski have all played really well making Connolly expendable. My feeling is trade him to a smaller market team where there is less pressure (Florida, Phoniex) and a team that needs some capable veteran players. I do thinmk Colbourne can give us what Connolly does at a cheaper rate.

  9. Bobby C...I'm certainly with you on Gustavvson. If we hyper-ventilate every time he (or Reimer, for that matter) allows a "questionable" goal, we may never be satisfied. I can assure younger Leaf fans that Johnny Bower, along with his many successors, whiffed on quite a few "easy" ones each season...(In fact, Montreal's J.C. Tremblay used to scored usually at least once a season on all-time Red Wing and Maple Leaf great Terry Sawchuk with one of those old-time "flip" shots from center-ice. Sawchuk would get flustered and miss it entirely....)

    As for Connolly, you have well-outlined what he can bring, and the fact that, for reasons fair or unfair, he tends to leave many of us wanting more. Can that be hung, as we both mentioned above, on his wingers? To a certain degree, absolutely. And I agree with your reference in that regard to young Kadri.

    As Leaf fans we do tend to always want more, or something (or someone) different.

    And yes, contractual realities create a whole sub-text of issues and challenges. Good that none of us "opiners" (I don't think that's a real word...) are making the decisions, eh?

  10. Thanks Wilbur. I wonder if Connolly's pay scale would scare teams off? But I also wonder if Burke is thinking on the very point you make about Colborne (possibly) providing similar work at a lower cap hit....

  11. Very good posts by all. I think the common theme seems to be his lack of fit with current players and his cap hit for a non-first line player and its impact on future signings of other players.
    I agree. He seems to be a decent player but has yet to find any synergy with his teammates. Perhaps it would be better for him to be relocated? On the other hand, maybe he, Lombardi and Armstrong might make a pretty good line if they get time to work together?

  12. Thanks Ed, you've well captured the conundrum the Leafs are facing with Connolly, a nice player who may not be fitting or jelling quite yet...

  13. I think of Conolly as an experiment for the Kessel line and a placeholder for when Kadri and Colborne are truly ready.

    It wasn't so long ago that the Grabovski line wasn't playing that well so lets give this third line some time to gel.

    Just a few years ago Conolly and Lombardi would have made the core of a very good second line on some teams. If the Leafs could get some scoring and defense out of this third line...that could make the Leafs very tough to shut down.

    If it doesn't click soon perhaps they need a bit more grit with Armstrong taking Crabbe's place on the third line? Crabbe has already shown that he can score while playing on the forth line.

    Conolly has been good to have around with the injuries to Lombardi and Armstrong. What if Bozak or Lombardi goes down for any stretch this year or next? I think you will be glad Conolly is here.

    Conolly only has one more year on his contract. Even with his high salary, he would be quite tradeable at mid-season next year to a Western team making a Cup run. At that point Colborne comes up for good.

    Conolly also gets injured himself, so next year if he goes on an extended long-term injury reserve you can bring in players of equal salary under the injury cap relief clause and this problem could solve itself.

  14. All fair points DP, thanks for dropping by. Some Leafs fans are preaching patience with TC, others are not so inclined. Interesting discussion...

  15. I kind of like Connolly, yet there are moments when I feel he's thinking too much and not acting, or he's just not fast enough at times. We've gotten decent value from him so far (especially compared to Ville Leino!) but if moving him at the deadline as a "sell high" secures Grabbo, well then, see ya later, Tim, and I won't think of you much again. It's only 1 year to go, so once again we can thank Burke for not handcuffing us with an onerously long deal.

  16. Like a lot of us, KidK, it sounds like you're a bit on the fence on this on....if he stays and plays well, great. If not, he is perhaps move-able....

  17. A very interesting point from another Leaf site:

    This year there might so few sellers and a lack of quality players that Burke might have his best chance to trade Conolly right at the deadline.

    It would also solve the re-signing Grabo problem.

    Second round draft choice for Conolly?

    Would you do it?

  18. I appreciate that expectation on Connolly may be higher than it should. He has not been terrible or a liability. He has a reputation for decent PK work, and he can provide other necessary skills than simply goals and assists.

    For me, I do take it as more of a larger picture (not to say no one else sees it). The numbers are these according to

    Under the current cap, the Leafs have $13M available next year ($51M committed to 16 players). Over $11M is committed to Connolly, Lombardi and Armstrong. Quite a bit for a 3rd line, especially one where all 3 have missed significant time the past few seasons.

    Not signed: Kulemin, Grabovski, Gustavsson, Franson, Crabb, Boyce.

    Granted, this is barring any deals sending say Komisarek or someone elsewhere.

    I tend to think at least Gustavsson, Grabovski and Franson are due raises. Will $13M be enough to sign those 3, and another 4 players? Would we be content to see Armstrong and Connolly stay while Grabovski and Franson walk?

    I still go back to the rationale for signing Connolly... an upgrade at centre on the first line. Not a third line guy. Armstrong at $3M was borderline overpriced as a 3rd liner. Lombardi wasn't really sure he'd play. If we'd heard Burke say "Tim Connolly is going to our third line for $4.75M" I think there would have been a huge outcry that money was not well spent.

    I mean, it's not all doom and gloom. I doubt any of TC, ML or CA get dealt this season. I'd think Grabo and Franson re-sign at something like $4.25M and $1.75 respectively. Goalie will be a decision for certain. But, who knows, maybe they let Grabo walk, sign a decent centre for $6M and let Bozie move down, and go with Scrivens and Reimer. There's ways around it.

  19. DP....That's a great question (as to whether or not I would trade Connolly for a second round draft pick...) My problem is is: I don't know how useful/effective Connolly will be at this stage of his career in the playoffs. He will block a shot, and he's not "old", but I just wonder if he will provide the grit required to fight through the playoff checking and produce on offence. (We know the first two lines will face higher checking than they are seeing now...)

    The other side of the coin is, I would not offer a second rounder for Connolly (for the reasons I just mentioned) if I was another team's GM.

  20. Mark...good overview. If I had to guess, and it is purely that, I'm thinking Burke signs Grabovski soon. Doesn't mean he could never be traded, but I think it would firm things up at the centre position for the next while (assuming Bozak, Colborne continue to develop and are not traded and Steckel maintains the fourth-line role...) It's not a powerhouse group up the middle but competitive in the East...