Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Washington Capitals: 2018-2019 By the Tens -- Forwards: Brett Connolly

Brett Connolly

“Luck is not chance, it's toil; fortune's expensive smile is earned.”
-- Emily Dickinson

If you are going to have a career year, it is best to have it in the last year of a contract before embarking on free agency.  It worked for Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson last season, when he parlayed a career year into an eight-year/$64 million contract.  While he will not earn quite the payday that Carlson earned last summer, Brett Connolly is poised to see the career year he had in 2018-2019 be converted into a handsome contract of his own.

It did not start out that way as Connolly started his eighth NHL season.  Coming off consecutive 15-goal seasons with the Capitals, both career highs for him, he played through his first five ten-game segments – 50 games played – with nine goals, another 15-goal pace.  He ramped up his production in a big way over his last three segments, though.  Connolly wrapped up the season with 13 goals in his last 31 games over those segments, a 34-goals per 82 games pace.

It was a career year for Connolly in goals (22), assists (24), and points (46), but it was a career year in other respects, too.  He dressed for 81 games, topping his previous high of 71 games with Boston in 2015-2016. His five game-winning goals were a career best, surpassing the three he had in his first year with the Caps in 2016-2017.  He also displayed a new-found assertiveness reflected in his shot total.  The 139 shots on goal he posted was not only a career best, it was the first time he topped 100 shots for a season, and his 1.72 shots per game was more than one-third more than his career average before this season (1.28).

Fearless’ Take… That Brett Connolly topped the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career is not the odd part of his season, but perhaps that he took as long as he did to get there.  This is a player who recorded 86 goals in 144 games in junior hockey, nine goals in 23 games in international tournament play, and 52 goals in 137 games in the AHL.  But there was an odd consistency in his early career.  In 201 games covering seven seasons with Tampa Bay and Boston, Connolly had 39 goals – a 15-goals per 82 games pace.  He scored precisely 15 goals in each of his first two seasons in Washington, but at a somewhat higher pace (18 goals per 82 games).  That he should make the leap to 22 goals might seem like a lot, but it appears more of a progression than a quantum leap when looked at in terms of goals per game.  That suggests that this season is not an aberration, but the maturity of a goal scorer who had a well-defined role and a career high in games played (81) to play it.

Cheerless’ Take… A strange thing about Connolly’s season was his ice time.  He skated more than 15 minutes 16 times in 81 games, but the Caps had only an 8-6-2 record in those games (he had four goals in those games).  He also skated less than 11:30 in 16 games, and the Caps had an 11-2-3 record in those games (he also had four goals in those games).   

Odd Connolly Fact… Brett Connolly had eight games this season in which he recorded a goal on his only shot on goal.  Only Dallas’ Cody Eakin had more such instances (nine).  In his three seasons as a Capital, no player in the league has had more one-shot/one-goal games than Connolly (24).  J.T. Miller is second with 16 such games.  And, those games have been good indicators of success, the Caps posting a 19-2-3 record in those 24 games.

Game to Remember… March 14th at Philadelphia

When the Caps opened their next to last road trip of the season, they were packing a seven-game winning streak into their baggage.  However, they dropped a 5-3 decision in Pittsburgh to the Penguins to open their trip in what was a frustrating night for Connolly – no points and four shots on goal in just over 13 minutes of ice time.  A trip to Philadelphia two nights later would normally seem like a stiff test after such a loss, but the Caps had already taken two decisions from the Flyers this season.  In their second and final trip to Philadelphia this season, Connolly got the Caps on the right side of things early.  After an attempted keep-in by John Carlson of a fluttering puck dribbled to Michal Kempny just inside the blue line, Kempny sent a slap pass to Connolly just off the post to the right of goalie Carter Hart.  Connolly settled the puck and whipped it past the right skate of Hart to give the Caps a 1-0 lead just 2:52 into the contest. 

The Caps took a 2-0 lead before the first intermission on a Lars Eller goal, Connolly recording the primary assist, but the Flyers halved the deficit barely a minute into the second period on a James van Riemsdyk goal.  Connolly restored the two-goal lead mid-way through the frame when he stripped Travis Sanheim of the puck at the Caps’ blue line, skated down the left wing accompanied by Carl Hagelin on his right.  As he got to the left wing circle he ripped a shot that sailed past Hart’s glove on the far side to make it 3-1 at the 8:43 mark.  It would be the game-winning goal in the Caps’ 5-2 win, his fourth of five game-winning goals this season, and his second three-point game of the year.

Game to Forget… January 23rd at Toronto

Trips to Toronto are occasions for great anticipation by players.  And Toronto has become a difficult place for visitors with the Maple Leafs’ improvements over the last several years.  Compounding the problem for the Caps was that they would be playing the back half of a back-to-back set of games and doing so against a supercharged offense in the Maple Leafs.  The Caps got out to a lead late in the first period on a Nicklas Backstrom goal but surrendered the lead with less than a minute in the period.  Washington grabbed the lead again early in the second on a goal by Alex Ovechkin, but there the game took a turn.  Toronto scored four straight goals on their way to a 6-3 win.  It was a forgettable night for Connolly, who did not record a point, managed a single shot on goal, two shot attempts, and had a takeaway for his 12:44 in ice time.  He also finished minus-3 for the evening, his worst plus-minus rating of the season and only the second time as a Capital that he finished minus-3 (February 17, 2018 at Chicago in a 7-1 loss).

Postseason… Like his teammates, Connolly’s postseason breaks into home and road pieces, but perhaps not quite as cleanly as some of those teammates.  In four home games he was 1-0-1, plus-1, with seven shots on goal.  In three road games, Connolly was 1-0-1, minus-3, with two shots on goal.  His nine shots in seven games made his 2018 performance on the way to a Stanley Cup look like the outlier.  He had 32 shots in 24 games last spring (six goals), which was quite different from this spring’s effort and that of his first career trip to the postseason, with the Caps in 2017, when he managed only six shots on goal in seven games without recording a goal.

Looking ahead…

Brett Connolly is in an enviable place.  And then again, he is not.  The enviable part is that he had a career season as he enters his prime performance and earning years (he will turn 27 years of age on May 2nd).  His current two-year/$3.0 million contract is expiring, and he will be due a big raise.  Looking at comparable right wings at capfriendly.com (24-30 years of age, 15-25 goals, 40-50 points this season), it would seem unlikely he would command the same money as Brandon Saad ($6.0 million cap hit) or even Tom Wilson ($5.167 million cap hit), but a contract at or north of $4.0 million per year hardly seems out of the question for a 27-year old right wing who can post 20-25 goals and has a Stanley Cup on his resume.

Where one does not envy Connolly is in facing the difficult decision between maximizing his earning potential and staying in a town and a team with which he fits, even if that team almost certainly cannot afford what other teams could offer.  Players dream about being in a position to use a career year to make a leap in earnings. Last year it worked for John Carlson and the Capitals, and made fans happy when he inked a long-term extension with the club.  Given all the decisions the Caps have to make about players this year and next,  it might be a bit too much to expect them to go two-for-two in re-signing a player coming off a career year.  This could come down to which player they want to pay $4 million, Carl Hagelin, who is more versatile, but who has never had a 20-goal year in eight seasons and is almost four years older than Connolly, or Connolly, the more productive offensive player, if somewhat limited to that role

In the end…

It took some time, but Brett Connolly re-engineered his game, from a top-ten draft pick expected to provide powerful scoring punch (a role in which he disappointed two teams) to a third-liner who can provide scoring production not usually seen from that layer of forwards.  He has paired well with Lars Eller over the last two seasons to make the Caps’ third line an important ingredient in their success.  But nothing lasts forever, especially in hockey, where circumstance and financial considerations make for constant and frequent player turnover.  The term “cap casualty” might be attached to Connolly this summer, but if it comes to pass, it is because his performance and contributions to the team’s success over the last three years made it so.  And fans should be happy with that.

Grade: B+

Washington Capitals: 2018-2019 By the Tens -- Forwards: Andre Burakovsky

Andre Burakovsky

“Suspense is worse than disappointment.”
-- Robert Burns
Ten months ago, we closed our look back at Andre Burakovsky’s season with this question: “does he take the next step to being a productive top-six quality forward, or will he continue to exhibit the injury tendencies and inconsistencies of the last three seasons?”  After a third straight season posting 12 goals and a second straight season of 25 points, we have our answer, and it is not one that Caps fans would have preferred.  

Despite the fact that Burakovsky is still just 24 years old and will not turn 25 until next February, he finished the 2018-2019 season with 328 regular season and another 56 postseason games on his resume.  One would think – or at least hope – that a player with this much experience on his resume was displaying the game one would expect to see in his prime.  If that is true for Burakovsky, it is something of a disappointment, if this is his prime performance level.  But here is the frightening part of coming to that conclusion at this point in his career.  Let’s consider three players over their first five seasons up to their 24 year old season:

Burakovsky:  23rd overall draft pick (2013), 62 goals, 83 assists, 145 points, 4183 minutes ice time

Player B: 7th overall draft pick (2011), 58 goals, 87 assists, 145 points, 3995 minutes ice time

Player C: 6th overall draft pick (2006), 51 goals, 100 assists, 151 points, 4250 minutes ice time

Player B is Mark Scheifele, who blossomed into a 29-goal scorer in that fifth season of his career and thereafter has been a point per game player for the Winnipeg Jets.  Player C is Derick Brassard, who does have a 60-point season and two 20-goal seasons, but who is now on his sixth NHL team in 12 seasons and fourth in his last two seasons.  One is a bona fide NHL star, while the other has always seemed to be more potential than performance despite decent mid-career numbers.

Burakovsky meandered his way to an unimpressive set of numbers over his first five ten-game segments, going 6-6-12, minus-5, covering a total of 44 games out of the 50 on the schedule to that point that brought the Caps to the All-Star Game break.  After that, and here is where Burakovsky’s propensity to tease emerged once more, he was 6-7-13, plus-7, in his last 32 games over the last three segments, despite averaging almost a minute less per game over this stretch (10:43) than the previous one (11:25).  He did, however, close the regular season and open the postseason once more with a lot of zeroes on his score sheet.  After posting goals in three straight games in early March, he went his last 14 games of the regular season and first five games of the postseason with one goal and one assist with an “even” plus-minus rating.

Fearless’ Take… For all his disappointments in light of his potential, Andre Burakovsky is rather accomplished for this franchise at this point in his career.  Among 78 players who played in at least 100 games by their 24-year old season for the Caps, he is ninth in games played (328), tied for 15th in career goals (62, with Michal Pivonka), 12th in even strength goals (55), 23th in assists (83), 20th in points (145), and sixth in game-winning goals (13).  Even in 2018-2019 he was important for results, even if you wish he did it more often.  The Caps were 9-2-1 in the 12 games in which he had a goal, 15-3-4 in the 22 games in which he had a point. 

Cheerless’ Take… There was an odd lack of engagement by Burakovsky in a physical sense this season.  He is not generally known as a physical player, but only eight times this season did he record a hit and a blocked shot in the same game.  Not that it mattered a lot, since the Caps were just 4-3-1 in those games.  And there was the odd lack of team results even when he was engaged.  In 41 games this season, Burakovsky was one ice for at least ten shot attempts at 5-on-5.  Only 22 times in those games did the Caps win.  He just was not consistently able to translate action into results.

Odd Burakovsky Fact… Of 20 players with at least 50 goals scored for the Caps since 2005-2006, Burakovsky has the second-best percentage of game-winning goals to total goals (21.0 percent), trailing only Jay Beagle (23.5 percent).

Game to Remember… December 6th at Arizona

The Caps were in the midst of a three-game road trip in early December, having lost the first game of that trip and with losses in consecutive games for the first time in a month when they took the ice in Arizona.  The Caps found themselves chasing the game, allowing the game’s first goal and allowing another barely a minute after they tied the game early in the second period.  Matt Niskanen  got the Caps even late in the second period, and the teams fought to a draw with no goals scored in the first 15 minutes of the third period.  In the 16th minute, Niskanen fired a long cross-ice diagonal pass from his own end to Burakovsky crossing the red line.  Skating into the Coyotes’ end, Burakovsky got to the top of the left wing circle and unleashed a shot under the stick of defenseman Kevin Connauton and past the blocker of goalie Adin Hill on the short side to make it a 3-2 game, 15:18 into the period.  Alex Ovechkin potted an empty netter late, but for Burakovsky, subbing for an injured Tom Wilson on the top line, his was the game-winning goal, welcome in ending a two-game losing streak and lighting the match to what would be a five-game winning streak.

Game to Forget…  February 3rd vs. Boston

A lot of Capitals might like to forget this game in early February.  The Caps went into it with a 14-game winning streak against the Bruins.  There would not be a 15th.  Tuukka Rask, whose career numbers against the Caps going into this game would frighten Stephen King, pitched a 1-0 shutout to become the all-time leader in wins by a goalie in Bruin history.  For his part, Burakovsky did not record a shot attempt while skating on the fourth line, hitting the ice for only ten shifts and 7:18 of ice time, none of which came in the last 13 minutes of the game with the Caps trying to chase down the tying goal.

Postseason… If the Caps had anything at all from Burakovsky early in the series against Carolina, the series might not have gone seven games.  As it was, though, he did not record a point in Games 1-5, was minus-4, and had only one shot on goal over those games.  Only once in those five games did he skate more than 10 minutes, logging 14:08 in a 2-1 loss in Game 4.  He did bounce back somewhat in Games 6 and 7 with an assist in the former and a goal in the latter, but it was not nearly enough.  Going back to last spring’s Stanley Cup final, he is 1-2-3, minus-3, in his last ten postseason games with only nine shots on goal, three of those coming in the double-overtime loss to Carolina in Game 7 in the first round that ended the Caps’ season.

Looking forward…

After completing his entry level contract at three years and $2.775 million, followed by his extension for two years at $3.0 million per year on a bridge contract, Andre Burakovsky finds himself an arbitration-eligible free agent.  To retain negotiating rights, the Caps would have to qualify him at $3.25 million.  That is a lot to pay a player who averaged barely 11 minutes per game this season, was at times a fourth liner and others a healthy scratch, and who was largely silent in the latter part of the regular season and playoffs.  Given that the Caps have the renewals of Carl Hagelin, Brett Connolly, Christian Djoos, and Jakub Vrana, among others, on their plate, Burakovsky might be at a crossroads of his career. 

In the end…

Burakovsky does not have the enigmatic quality of Alexander Semin, a highly skilled player whose frustrating tenure as a Capital preceded Burakovsky’s by a decade.  Nevertheless, Burakovsky’s career in Washington has been a head-scratcher.  He has displayed a variety of talents – speed, skating ability in tight places, good hands, a wicked shot – but it has not been displayed either frequently or consistently enough.  More often, he has simply disappeared too often from games altogether.  A player of his skill should not have had 21 games this season without a shot on goal, although getting fourth line minutes for much of the year will do that.  It seems as likely as not that Burakovsky will be playing in another city next season.  Retaining him is among the hardest decisions the Caps will make this off-season.  It is hard for a team to let a 24-year old with his skill set go, and how the Caps deal with that decision will be an important story line this off-season. 

Grade: C-