Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Washington Capitals 2017-2018 Previews -- Forwards: Brett Connolly

Brett Connolly

“Always do whatever's next.”
-- George Carlin

When Brett Connolly signed a one-year, $850,000 contract with the Washington Capitals on July 1, 2016, it seemed an example of a player who was slowly playing himself out of the league, or at least into irrelevance, matched to a team willing to take a flyer on a still-young forward who could, if things worked  out, complement a deep stable of skilled forwards.

Connolly was about to join his third NHL franchise (drafted by Tampa Bay, later traded to Boston) after just turning 24 years of age the previous May.  And it was not as if his production was nearly that which might be expected of a former sixth-overall draft pick (2010). In 210 regular season games before joining the Caps he had just 27 goals and 59 points.

Connolly took advantage of his signing.  After a slow start brought on by disuse (he sat for 14 of the team’s first 31 games), he scored 12 goals in his last 49 games (a 20-goal pace over 82 games) to finish with 15, seventh-best on the team.  What is more, the goals mattered.  The Caps were 12-1-2 in the 15 games in which he scored a goal, and three of them were game-winners (two of them on the road). 

Those 15 goals he scored in just 66 games represented a career high, as did his plus-20, tied for seventh-best on the club (not bad for a player who was a career minus-15 coming into this season).  He had the third-best shot attempts-for percentage (Corsi-for) among forwards who appeared in at least half the team’s games (54.00 percent).  All of this was done in a season in which he played the second fewest games of his four full seasons and in which he averaged under 11 minutes per game, second lowest of any of his six seasons.

Odd Connolly Fact… Nine of his 15 goals last season came in games in which he recorded only one shot on goal.  No player in the league had more such games (Henrik Sedin had eight games of shot-and-a-goal).

Fearless’ Take…

Brett Connolly seemed to have a particularly good relationship with Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky on the third line last season.   Both players had much better possession numbers with Connolly than apart.  Eller had a 56.12 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 with him and 49.61 apart, while Burakovsky’s numbers were 58.72 percent with and 50.96 apart (numbers from naturalstattrick.com).  What’s more, the “production” measure (shots for and against) aligned with the “performance” measure – goals for and against.  Connolly and Eller paired had a scoring advantage of 26-12 at 5-on-5, while Connolly and Burakovsky enjoyed a 17-6 scoring advantage at fives.

Cheerless’ Take…

Zero-zero-zero.  That was his scoring line in the postseason, and he didn’t take the ice after Game 1 against the Penguins.  He didn’t play as many as seven minutes in any of the last four games in which he appeared (of seven total).  He was benched in favor of Paul Carey, a player who had not been in a postseason game since 2014, in Game 2.  After that, the Caps went with seven defensemen in games and 11 forwards, Connolly being the odd-man out.  Even in the regular season, he scored more than half of his goals (eight) in a 16-game stretch form January 9th through February 9th.  Other than that, seven goals in 50 games looked a little more pedestrian (did I use that word right, Fearless?).

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2017-2018:
  • 300 games played (currently has 276)
  • 50 goals (currently has 42)
  • 100 points (currently has 82)

The Big Question… Was Connolly a product of his linemates?

A backward-looking question such as this has forward-looking implications.  Brett Connolly had much more success skating with Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky on the third line than he had with any other forward combination.  But one could make too much of that, given how few minutes he skated with anyone other forward at 5-on-5 (he skated 484 minutes with Eller, 277 minutes with Burakovsky, then just 85 minutes with the departed-at-the-deadline Zach Sanford and 81 minutes with Jay Beagle).

What was the third line could find one or more members of it on different lines this year.  Burakovsky seems likely to get a long look at being on the left side of the second line.  While this might leave Connolly with Eller, but looking for a new left wing (perhaps Jakub Vrana), Connolly could find himself on the right side of the second line with the departure of Justin Williams.  He will be battling with Tom Wilson for a look on that line, at least to start the season.

What complicates the question, though, is the way Connolly was used late in the season, as in “almost not at all” in the postseason.  It was a bad taste left in everyone’s mouth after a surprisingly good regular season.  But even there, there is a caution.  Connolly was not particularly consistent.  That surge Cheerless pointed out, and the so-so remainder of his game log, suggests Connolly has some work to do to be seen as a dependable player night-in/night-out, whatever line on which he ends up playing.  And that could depend on how well he plays with players other than Eller and Burakovsky.

In the end…

Right wing is a position that could be an issue.  With Justin Williams in Carolina and uncertainty about whether T.J. Oshie can repeat last year’s 33-goal production, getting more and more consistent play out of Brett Connolly is going to be needed to maintain a reliable level of production out of the right side of the forward lines.  And, it goes without saying that should the Caps reach the postseason, a scoring line of 0-0-0, minus-2, in eight minutes a game from Connolly (what he posted last spring) would be a disaster, absent other roster-making magic from the front office.

It would be fair to say that Brett Connolly made the most of the opportunity presented to him when he arrived in Washington last season.  Well, except for that postseason thing, but it was his first trip to the playoffs, too.  He signed a two-year/$3 million contract as a restricted free agent in June.  Now, the simple task on the to-do list is to do what comes next, fill a middle-six role on the right side in a consistent and reliable way.

Projection: 72 games, 12-12-24, plus-14

Photo: Claus Andersen/Getty Images North America