Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Washington Capitals 2018-2019 Previews -- Forwards: Brett Connolly

Brett Connolly

“My yesterdays walk with me. They keep step, they are gray faces that peer over my shoulder.”
-- William Golding

Brett Connolly was a big scorer in junior hockey.  In his last three seasons with the Prince George Cougars in the Western Hockey League, he scored 86 goals in 140 games.  He looked the part of a sixth-overall draft pick (by the Tampa Bay Lightning) in 2010.  His early career numbers in the NHL could not match that level of output, or even come close.  In his first five NHL seasons, split between the Lightning and the Boston Bruins, Connolly recorded 27 goals in 210 games.

And then, he came to the Washington Capitals as a free agent in 2016.  In Washington, Connolly settled into a third line role and found some measure of his old scoring touch.  He scored 15 goals in just 66 games in 2016-2017.  It was for him a career high and helped him earn a two-year/$3 million contract with the Caps. 

Connolly matched that goal total in 2017-2018 in 70 games played, one off his career best (71 games with the Boston Bruins in 2015-2016).  More important to the Caps’ success this past season, he atoned for a seven game postseason in 2017 in which he did not record a point by scoring six goals and posting nine points in the 24-game march to the Stanley Cup.  He was also a remarkable efficient shooter.  Of 571 players recording 50 or more shots on goal last season, Connolly finished third in shooting percentage (22.4), behind Colorado’s Alexander Kerfoot and Vegas’ William Karlsson (both at 23.4 percent).  No player in the NHL with 15 or more goals did it with less average ice time per game than Connolly (12:00).

Odd Connolly Fact…

Following off a comment above, Brett Connolly was the only player in the NHL last season to score 15 or more goals and do it averaging less than one shot on goal per game (0.96).

Fearless’ Take…

Brett Connolly might not get the attention or the appreciation he deserves for that basic skill of scoring goals.  He is one of five Capitals who recorded at least 15 goals in each of the last two seasons (Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov are the others.  He is one of six Caps to record at least ten even strength goals over the past two seasons (adding Lars Eller to the list above).  It is the sort of supplemental scoring successful teams need.  Last season the Caps lost only one game in regulation among the 14 contests in which Connolly scored a goal.

Cheerless’ Take…

Connolly has value as a goal scorer, but it doesn’t seem to extend to other parts of the game.  He has skated a total – not an average, a total – of 2:05 in shorthanded ice time in 136 games over two seasons with the Caps.  He did get more power play time last season (1:26 per game as a replacement for Justin Williams).  He was not especially effective in high level possession numbers (46.53 Corse-for percentage at 5-on-5/minus-2.04 Relative CF, both ninth among 13 Caps forwards playing at least 500 5-on-5 minutes; numbers from Corsica.hockey).

Potential Milestones:
  • 400 NHL games (he has 346)
  • 200 Penalty minutes (he has 172)
  • 500 shots on goal (he has 442)
  • 5,000 minutes played (he has 4,098)
  • 50 even strength goals (he has 45)

The Big Question…  Is Brett Connolly really that efficient?

Brett Connolly’s contributions on offense are predicated on a particular attribute – efficiency.  In 136 regular season games with the Caps, he has 30 goals on 148 shots, a 20.3 percent shooting percentage.  Of 559 players recording at least 100 shots on goal over the last two seasons, none have as good a shooting percentage (Montreal’s Paul Byron has a 19.9 percent shooting percentage).  And this begs the question, is Connolly that good or that lucky?  It has been quite a departure from his earlier career numbers.  Over his first five seasons with Tampa Bay and Boston, he had 27 goals on 294 shots, a 9.2 percent shooting percentage.  In half of the games in which he scored goals last season (seven of 14), Connolly scored on his only shot on goal.  Last season was the first in which he averaged less than a shot on goal per game. 

Here is a fact to keep in mind as this season begins for Connolly, coming off a 22.4 percent shooting percentage performance in 70 games.  Since the 2005-2006 season, only one player has had more than one season of appearing in at least 65 games and posting a shooting percentage over 20 percent.  Colorado’s Alex Tanguay did it three times.  There were 22 other players, including Connolly, who did it once. 

That shot volume will have to increase in frequency if his shooting percentage regresses.   However, there is that possibility.  Connolly did have an 18.5 percent shooting percentage in 2016-2017, his first with the Caps, and still posted 15 goals.  Even that percentage might be stretching possibilities, given that only Tanguay and Antoine Brunette have more seasons since 2005-2006 with playing in 65 games and a shooting percentage over 18.5 percent (three apiece).  Whether he can be as streaky as he has been in the past might tell the tale.  For instance, over an 11-game stretch last season (December 2 – December 28), Connolly had six goals on 11 shots (54.5 percent).

In the end…

Brett Connolly being reclaimed off the NHL scrap heap and becoming a productive player for the Caps is one of the better stories for the club over the past couple of years.  But the NHL never stands still, and upgrading when the opportunity presents itself is at or near the top of every general manager’s to-do list.  Connolly is entering the last year of a contract with a $1.5 million cap hit this season.  And, as the biggest offensive contributor among the forwards in the position of becoming an unrestricted free agent after this season (Devante Smith-Pelly is also an unrestricted free agent after this season, but he is not quite the offensive player Connolly is), there might some cause to look over his shoulder at a recent signing

At first glance, it would seem that the signing of free agent Sergei Shumakov is going to set up a battle at the right wing with Connolly to see who mans the third line on that side and who plays the right side on the fourth line.  It could give the Caps uncommon depth at right wing, with Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie, where it is possible that all four finish the upcoming season with double digits in goals.

Projection: 72 games, 15-13-28, even

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America