-- J. R. R. Tolkien
Brett Connolly has been around for someone who turned 24 years old last May. The British Columbia native played for his hometown Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League, scoring 30 goals in 65 games in his first full season of junior hockey, a performance good enough to earn him the Canadian Hockey League Rookie of the Year award. The following season, in 2009-2010, he was plagued by hip problems that limited him to 16 games with the Cougars, but he was able to participate in the World Under-18 championships for a second time, and the following June was selected sixth overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL Entry Draft.
Another year of juniors (46 goals in 59 games, plus participation with the Canadian national junior team, and he was ready to make the jump to the NHL, or so it might have seemed. Connolly’s rookie season in Tampa was underwhelming, finishing 4-11-15, minus-9, for a club that went 38-36-8. It was apparent that he needed more seasoning, and the lockout that delayed the start of the 2012-2013 season afforded the Lightning the change to give it to him. Connolly was assigned to the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL and ended up playing in only five games with the Lightning after the lockout ended. It wasn’t much different the following season as Connolly played in 66 games with Syracuse and only 11 with the Bolts.
Connolly’s 2014-2015 started slowly by missing 12 games with a lower=body injury. Upon returning in late November, he was an efficient scorer on a goals per minutes played basis (1.3/60 at 5-on-5), but he was not getting much ice time (less than 12 minutes per game) and was generally playing with linemates of limited offensive skills. With the Lightning headed to a 50-win season, they traded Connolly to the Boston Bruins for second round draft picks in 2015 and 2016. He dressed for only five games with the Bruins to finish the season, failing to score a goal.
Last season, Connolly dressed for 71 games with the Bruins and managed nine goals and 25 points, the games played and points representing career highs. It was not enough for the Bruins to extend to the restricted free agent a qualifying offer. On July 1st, still just 24 years of age, he signed a one-year/$850,000 deal with the Capitals.
What comes to mind immediately with respect to Connolly is “too far, too fast.” He was a hot shot junior player. He was a top-ten draft pick. He went straight from juniors to the NHL at the age of 19 without a game of AHL experience in between. Although his ice time has been sparse for a player of his pedigree, he has been a good possession player, or perhaps more accurately, a better one. He struggled in this regard with Tampa Bay, posting a Corsi-for at 5-on-5 under 50 percent in 79 games over three seasons (46.8 percent). In two seasons in Boston he was over 50 percent (52.9 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey). And this is a player who scored 86 goals in 144 games in junior and 52 goals in 137 games in the AHL. On a team that is likely to have three solid, stable lines, Connolly is a potential low-risk/high-reward sort of signing.
How do you score just seven even strength goals in 71 games playing most your 5-on-5 minutes with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand? That’s what Connolly did last season with Boston (numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com). That’s not being a passenger, that’s being cargo. Look at his numbers to date…through age 23, 210 games, 27-32-59, minus-15. Know who that looks like since the 2004-2005 lockout? Dustin Boyd (210 games by age 23, 31-31-62, minus-11) or maybe Shawn Matthias (205 games by age 23, 25-35-60, minus-10). Boyd is out of the league, and Matthias is a decent, but unremarkable bottom-six forward on his fourth team. He’s been a big scorer at lower levels, but he hasn’t been able to translate that into meaningful numbers at the NHL level.
The Big Question… Is Brett Connolly a “fourth liner?”
That really isn’t an idle question. At the moment, the top two lines of forwards are a known commodity. Obtaining Lars Eller means that two-thirds of the third line is probably set with Marcus Johansson on the left wing. One might reasonably think Tom Wilson gets a look at the right side on the third line. If Daniel Winnik is on the left side of the fourth line, centered by Jay Beagle, this leaves the right side of the fourth line as a spot for which Connolly will fight, along with Stanislav Galiev, perhaps a Brad Malone (who is nominally a center) or a couple of others. Malone is probably penciled in for Hershey, but for Connolly and Galiev, the stakes are similar. Galiev is a little more than three months older than Connolly, but has played in far fewer games (26 to 210 for Connolly). But both are at something of a crossroads, Galiev trying to get past the “prospect” portion of his career to demonstrate he belongs in the NHL, and Connolly trying to get past being the “hot prospect” and just find regular employment at this level. They are similar “offense-first” kinds of players not normally associated with fourth line roles. It will be an interesting contest.
In the end…
Brett Connolly has the potential to give the Caps’ fourth line more offensive production from the wing than they have had in recent years. Looking at the parade of fourth line forwards from last season – Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson, Brooks Laich, Mike Richards, Daniel Winnik, Michael Latta, Paul Carey, Zach Sill, Stanislav Galiev, Chris Brown, Sean Collins, Chandler Stephenson – and the total was 25 goals, eight of them from Beagle and seven from Wilson. Connolly isn’t going to get to 25 goals (he won’t be a fourth liner if he’s anywhere near that total), but he could credibly get half-way there. On the other hand, he has very much been an underachiever relative to his amateur record and his draft position. A combination of his own under-production and who he is skating with could depress his numbers. There just isn’t much in his record to date to suggest whether he will go in one direction or the other. One just hopes that Verizon Center is the secret gate through which he passes to find the game that one might have expected from the sixth overall draft pick of 2010.
Projection: 68 games, 6-9-15, minus-1
Photo: Harry How/Getty Images North America