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Could Tim Connolly recapture the impact he had with the Sabres years ago?

I admit I am among those that largely saw last season’s performance by Tim Connolly as a washout.  I mean, he was “fine”, but fine doesn’t cut it in this day and age when you are given a, what, 5 million dollar contract per season.  And it's not good enough when you are basically handed the first-line center job with a Leaf team in desperate need of production.  He did some useful things, yes, and on occasion, showed flashes of the hands and vision that made him a very effective Buffalo Sabre for the better part of his career. But it was not a memorable season for the veteran center.

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?


  1. Hey Michael,

    The funny thing about Tim last year was that he was practically invisible on the ice. I only ever noticed him three times last year.

    1. October game vs. Penguins - makes that offensive blueline pass east-west on his rearend.

    2. Game vs. Carolina - Scores the overtime grabage goal against Ward - I have never seen a goalie that pissed off - lol.

    3. Feb game vs. Oilers in Edmonton - Scores the melodramatic goal before the epic 18-wheeler off the cliff end to the season.

    I think part of his problem was unfamiliarty with the system, and the teammates.

    We don't know what that locker-room was like - did they really give him the floor enough as perhaps he should have had being one of the vets and probably with the most playoff and end-drive to playoff berth experience from buffalo?

    Who knows?

    I think this much is clear - if his minutes and competition level can be managed and he stays healthy he is gonna improve.

    How much - that will depend on him and his linemates and perhaps even a little on Carlyle and Phanuef for leadership support.

    It is pretty obvious that he realizes this is make or break time - he doesn't have the luxury that say a Tyler Bozak or Clarke MacArthur has.

    Now we have to wait and watch.

    P.S. Sidenote - he is so not the only one who needs to bring it this year.

    To list a few: Lombardi, MacArthur, Kulimen, Lilies, Komisarek (can he plz finally), Phaneuf (I think so), Reimer of course, Scrivens (he was ok in win-loss against normal-to-easy competition), Grabo (He could have been better - and he knows it), Gardiner (Yes him - he needs to learn how to play defence and be better in the d-zone), Franson (U r freakin 6'5" - can u plz use it) Steckel - same as for Franson.

    Know someone who doesn't need to change a bit in my less than well polished opinion - Mike "Honeybadger" Brown.

    Lol - i have more - but i think i have said more than required as is.

    Anon from Scarborough.

  2. "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."

    I think its the second scenario. He seemed worried and was talking to Carlyle over the summer:

    “He’s an offensive player that didn’t have the year that I think he expected or we expected last year and we’re looking for a rebound year from Tim Connolly,” head coach Randy Carlyle said.

    “We’ve had conversations with him through the course of the summer and he’s indicated to us that he’d like us to enlighten him in a few of the areas (of improvement), so we enlightened him. Told him what our expectations are. We told him what he can expect from us. We’ve tried to be a transparent as we possibly can with our players.”

  3. No, I'm glad you posted, Scarborough Anon. You raise some valid questions around Connolly.

    I don't think expectations for him were, say, unduly high last season. Many fans were afraid he'd be on IR all season. But he definitely seemed to struggle to find his place on a regular basis here. You outline what some of the natural transition issues might have been, though we have no idea for sure, of course.

    Can he contribute? Yes, he sure could, though it may be even better if some of the younger guys, like Kadri, broke through instead.

    But I agree, clearly, that we need big efforts from a like of guys. I'm trying to think of someone who can't be "better" in some fashion than he was a season ago. It's a short list, indeed.

  4. That's the hope, DP, that Connolly recognizes he is at something of a career crossroads and that he has communicated clearly with management and the coaching staff about where he fits and how they see his role, etc.

    I'm not sure I see a long-term role here, but for now, he can help if he plays with confidence. A good start to the season would surely help all the way around.

  5. "I'm not sure I see a long-term role here, but for now..."

    I want him to have a spectacular season so that we can get something out of him in trade.

    It would be nice if he was playing so well that we dealt him and Franson and 2nd round pick for Louongo.

    Or perhaps we trade Collonly for a draft pick and flip that plus our own to move higher in the draft.

    happy thoughts...

  6. MIchael,

    I didn't think about Connolly at all this offseason. If someone had told me that his contract was finished after last year, I wouldn't have cared. He was almost completely invisible last year. I don't see that much changing this year. The only caveat I would raise is this is his contract year. Players have been known to drastically improve their effort as well as point totals when given the opportunity to sign one last large, free agent contract. I see Tim spending a lot of time as the healthy scratch in the pressbox. Barring injuries of course, to the guys higher on the depth chart. As well as those who bother with that pesky defence thing. Oh yeah, and the scoring thing I thought Connolly was brought here to do. If he can get back to being a decent player, perhaps our power play will rise up.

  7. I hear you, Jim. That's why I started this post with an admission that I just didn't really picture Connolly in my vision of the team's plans this season, either, based on what he did last year.

    I guess, in this mini pre-season period, I'm trying to step back and look at the personnel- the older vets like Komi and Connolly who may be moved along as well as the younger guys I'be written about - and see if I can provide a detached assessment.

    Leaf fans likely have modest expectations for Connolly, and that's OK- especially if he rebounds. We'll see. Thanks Jim.

  8. DP, i don't think anyone is taking Franson in a trade unless he has a contract beyond this season or they know certainly (as in here it through his agent or something like that) that he has long term interest.

    The best thing that can happen to the leafs is that Tim and Matthew and Maybe even MacArthur play much better and are traded for draft picks to team that either exit the playoffs early or don't make it.

    Micahel - I very much agree on the younger talent breaking through - i think it is very much the right time/perfect situation to make Kadri a regular on the leafs and let him learn on this level, and Maybe Kostka can become that solid 8th D option for the leafs down the stretch.

    But i believe for Kadri to make the leafs now or sometime this season on his own rather than injuries making them call him up - would be if some of the older dead weight is gone in trades.

    P.S. JVR injured already - concerned? Some talk reilly may play a few games - will it really be wise to burn one year of his 3-yr rookie contract on a shorten season - forget about the other things - just consider the player contract management prespective.

    Scarborough Anon.

  9. In my mind, Scarborough Anon, it's time for Kadri to be given an opportunity to play at this level with significant minutes and regular, steady linemates. If he earns his way, great, but no more yo-yo stuff, as I've said here before.

    I don't know about Franson, but maybe Ranger, if he feels ready for an NHL comeback later in the season, would be that "call-up" guy as an 8th d-man, along with Kostka.

    I've made the case about Rielly here before. I'm not a fan of 18 year-old defenseman in the NHL (not named Orr)- and certainly not on this roster. But the Leafs seem determined to bring him in. It didn't hurt Denis Potvin to play junior until he was 20, and he was way above the crowd in his day.

    Not sure about van Riemsdky. Carlyle seemed unconcerned after practice.

  10. Michael,

    Tim Connolly was a valuable play-making centre when he broke into the NHL. He put in some very good years with the Sabres, many as their first line centre and always as a top 6. He was competent defensively and was used both on the powerplay and the penalty kill. He routinely logged over 20 minutes a game.

    Numerous concussions seemed to erode his confidence but he was still a very useful player until game 6 0f the 2111 Eastern quarter-finals against Philadelphia. Mike Richards drove him headfirst into the boards.

    From that point on (ie the 2111-12 season) he has been ineffective. He is no longer a top 6 forward. I can see Carlyle utilizing him as a penalty killer or a fill-in winger on the bottom six but his present day skill set certainly does not warrant his current salary.

  11. "It appears that the Leafs dodged a bullet regarding forward James van Riemsdyk’s injury at training camp this morning.

    The 23-year-old winger left the ice at the MasterCard Center limping after taking a Mike Komisarek shot off the skate, which was of great concern since van Riemsdyk missed 26 games with Philadelphia last season due to a foot injury. After being examined by team doctors, the diagnosis was a bruised foot and he is expected to be ready to go on Saturday in Montréal.

    Forward Colton Orr was also injured this morning, suffering a dislocated finger. He is not expected to miss any time."

  12. I know this is off topic, however should we be having a discussion about Wade Redden who, if the reports are true, will be UFA by the end of the week? I note that he was a +8 in the year that, according to John Tortorella, he was no longer good enough to play in the NHL. In my mind, his sudden demise from elite to incompetent never passed the smell test, particularly given that Tortorella was behind Redden's AHL demotion. Could there be a salvagable rearguard there for the taking at a relatively low cost?

  13. No question the injuries have impacted Connolly's effectiveness, PeteCam. And I think that for players who play a certain style, age has an impact, as well. We'll see if Connolly can be a useful piece this season, or if he eventually is eased out of the line-up by younger players wanting to make an impression...

  14. For me, Bobby C., this is one of those things about sports that I wonder about. We tag players with a reputation (e.g. "Redden is done, he can't play any more..." because a particular team or coach adopted that view. (In Redden's case, would they have felt that way if he was making 1 million a year? Or did they feel that way because her was making 6 million or whatever...?)

    From what I have read, he actually played well and was a leader on his AHL team last year. Now, whether the Leafs would be interested, at a modest cost, I have no idea. They have too many guys (numbers-wise) in camp right now. But they are crying for a veteran with real experience and leadership skills....

  15. Wade Redden?

    -8 in the AHL last year, -1 the year before.

    Paul Ranger is +17, 20 points in 31 games in the AHL this year.

    On the offensive side Mike Kostka:

    34 points in 34 games and plus 8 this year in the AHL. Last year plus 28. He had a 50 point year earlier in career.

    We have better options in our own system. It's not like the JFJ days.

    Kadri has a hat trick in scrimage game today. Cuts will be interesting.

  16. I am just not sure if the debate should be framed as either Mike Kostka or Wade Redden, which is a little like comparing apples to oranges. Kostka is still a relatively young player with no NHL experience, yet his numbers show considerable potential at the NHL level. Redden, on the other hand, has an exceptional resume at the NHL level, including numerous awards and all-star recognitions as well as several gold medals and a silver medal on Canadian national teams. Redden brings something quite different than Kostka, a wealth of experience to the emerging Leaf defensive talents, Gardiner, Reilly and down the list. In addition, a salvaged player like Wade Redden can bring draft pick returns at the trade deadline, when, if successful, he would be viewed as a no-cost insurance policy for teams hoping for a deep playoff run. As far as the minus figure goes, I would not put too much stock in these numbers as they are contingent on many factors which can skew their value. As a side note, remember Justin Schultz? 48 points in 34 AHL games! Holy Mackinaw!

  17. Reports are that Carlyle was annoyed with Connolly today...Connolly mailing in shifts

  18. Redden is an interesting player, Bobby C... I'm guessing some NHL team will be interested once he becomes a UFA and would have a cap-friendly contract. From a Leaf perspective, we have lots of guys fighting for a job on defence, but certainly lack that veteran presence on the blue line.

  19. I feel like Connolly is a trade deadline third-round draft pick waiting to happen. Between Bozak, Grabovski, McClement, Steckel and, ideally, Kadri, there's just not much need for him unless he has an outstanding season. (Incidentally, I feel similarly about Lombardi.)

  20. Oops - spoke too soon on Lombardi...

  21. As you just mentioned, Peregrine, with Lombardi off to Phoenix, will Connolly be next to be moved to a "contender"? Lots of roster decisions upcoming, for sure...

  22. I know i said i wanted this very thing to happen, but i think the timing of this move was wrong.

    I personally believe we could have gotten a higher pick out of phoenix if we had waited a little longer and showcased Lombardi.

    I think, now that Lombardi is one year removed from that concussion - he may very well have played much better.

    But i bet a lot of us would have cried at the timing of that trade as well - if the leafs and he were to do well.

    Oh well, One down how many more to go?

    P.S. Sidenote - should Nonis offer sheet any of Subban, O'Reily or Benn? And replace the lost picks by getting the picks from shipping these old bodies - or is it too risky to the future to lose a 1st round pick in such a good draft for forwards.

    Scarborough Anon.

  23. I'd be shocked if Nonis went the offer sheet route, Scarborough Anon. I have a feeling Subban will sign just before Saturday's game!