After striking out on the biggest fish of the free agent market (Brad Richards), the Leafs quickly moved to “Plan B” which was signing Tim Connolly. The move was met with mixed emotions in Toronto, as some saw Connolly as a injury prone center who probably wouldn’t make much of an impact at the salary he signed. Others saw Connolly as a decent stopgap solution, given that his term (2 years) was extremely reasonable and that he has shown in the past he has the ability to put up numbers. Let’s take an in-depth look at Connolly and see what he’s all about.
The first thing to deal with is his current contract signed with the Leafs. It’s a two-year deal worth $9.5mil for an AAV (average annual value) of $4.75mil. It’s a little steep considering what he was paid in his last contract (two years, $9mil, AAV of $4.5mil) and the fact he didn’t really do much to deserve the raise. Speculation is however, that Connolly had other deals on the table which had longer contract lengths then what the Leafs offered. In order to secure his services, they gave him a raise in order to keep the deal at a minimum of two years. This is a great tradeoff, considering MLSE has deep pockets and we won’t potentially be stuck with an albatross contract.
The great thing also about Connolly’s contract is that the deal is slightly front-loaded, in that he’ll make $5.5mil of the $9.5mil this season, meaning he is due to be paid only $4mil next season. This makes Connolly an attractive options for cash struggled markets who need players with high cap hits to hit the floor (Connolly at $4.75mil) without actually paying them that much (Connolly will only cost a team $4mil in 2012-2013).
So when you really think about it, it’s a smart contract by Brian Burke and company, who flexed their financial muscle in order to get a deal which not only helps the team in the present, but could potentially help them down the road by bringing in assets through trade. For now, Connolly is very much an important part of the team so trade discussions should be pushed aside for a year or so.
Now that we’ve dealt with Connolly’s contract (which many people moaned about) we can talk about Connolly’s performance on the ice, and if he’s a viable solution for a (temporary) number one center.
What does it take to be a number one center in the NHL? Let’s take a look at some of the top offensive NHL centers last year:
The list above is the top thirty scoring centers in the NHL. The blank spots were players on teams that had already been represented on the list by a higher scoring player. After removing duplicate teams, there were 20 players remaining. Teams without a center in the top thirty in last year’s scoring include: Winnipeg (formerly Atlanta), Edmonton, Calgary, St. Louis, Phoenix, Nashville, Columbus, Florida, New Jersey and Buffalo. All team’s missed the playoffs except for Nashville, Phoenix and Buffalo, all of whom are known for their strong goaltending and tight defensive systems. This just shows that it’s basically essential to have a top scoring center to make the playoffs, although the case can be made that some non-playoff teams have top scoring centers, but the number of playoff teams vs. non-playoff teams is not even close.
Now, how does all of this relate to Tim Connolly? Well, let’s assume that for Tim to “have a good year” based on everyone’s standards, he’d need to eclipse the 50 point mark, preferably close to 60 points. I’m not saying it will guarantee the Leafs a playoff spot, but it would help, and it would be a pretty good season for Connolly.
There’s a lot of variables that go into how many points a player gets in a season, so let’s only look at what we can safely predict: linemates and special teams time.
Connolly has eclipsed the fifty point mark only twice in his career: 2005-2006 (63 GP – 16 G – 39 A – 55 PTS) and 2009-2010 (73 GP – 17 G – 48 A – 65 PTS). Let’s take a closer look at his 2009-2010 season, with this tool from DobberHockey.
It seems as if Connolly’s most common linemates were Jochen Hecht and Jason Pominville (28.82% at even strength, most used line at EV by team at 8.01%). Next most common linemates were Clarke MacArthur and Jason Pominville (11.76% at even strength, third most used line at EV by team at 3.27%). Of all lines used by Buffalo that year, Hecht – Connolly – Pominville was the highest scoring with 48 points at even strength.
On the man advantage, Buffalo’s most used line was Connolly – Pominville – Derek Roy – Vanek (most frequently used at 1.27%) and accounted for 20 points. Of Connolly’s 65 points that year, 27 were scored with the man advantage.
Buffalo had the 17th best powerplay in 2009-2010 at 17.6%, and were led by Connolly and his 27 powerplay points.
I think it’s safe to say Connolly will be on the most used Maple Leafs line at even strength this year, along with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. I think it’s also safe to say that Connolly will see lots of powerplay time, so he should help to inmprove in that department. However, will Connolly be able to replicate this successful seasons with his new linemates?
Hecht vs. Lupul
Hecht had a decent season on Connolly’s line, notching 42 points (21-21). Lupul’s best seasons have hovered between 45-55 points. After coming back from a series of injuries, a 40 point season for Lupul shouldn’t be that far fetched. Therefore I say Lupul and Hecht are comparable linemates.
Pominville vs. Kessel
Pominville, since becoming a mainstay on the Sabres, has consistently put up 60+ point seasons, with the exception of the one that just finished. He missed 9 games due to injury, and fell just short with 52 points. Kessel has essentially done the same, although has been in the league for less time. Kessel is thought of as a pure goal scorer, where as Pominville was more balanced, and saw his assists exceed his goal totals. I’m going to give the edge here to Kessel, solely for the fact he’s considered a pure scorer. If Connolly, who is considered a playmaker, can dish the puck off to Kessel, I think Kessel could eclipse 60 points, potentially 70.
Special Teams (Powerplay)
Although the Leafs have had issues with their powerplay in the past, I think with the additions of Cody Franson, John-Michael Liles and Connolly will improve their standing. I can’t quantify by how much they will improve, but I think that Connolly (and others) have the ability to get the job done with the man advantage. This will play a huge part in any success the Leafs wish to have this upcoming year.
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A lot of people seem to think Connolly is injury prone to the extent where it’s a certainty he won’t play the majority of the upcoming season. Let’s take a little look at Connolly’s injury history. Aside from the two concussions he suffered (that caused him to miss essentially two full seasons) he’s suffered a series of everyday hockey injures: hip, foot, groin, knee. Sure, he’s missed a lot of time due to them, but can you really fault him? If you play hard, theres a chance you will be injured.
On the other side of the spectrum, you can’t play and score when your out of the lineup. For Connolly to have a successful season, he’s going to need to play 75+ games. Anything less than that, and his numbers will suffer and Leafs Nation will be in full uproar about how fragile he is.
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After looking at all these areas, I think it’s highly possible for Connolly to score anywhere from 50-60 points this season, giving the Leafs two legitimate scoring centers (Grabovski). I also think Connolly will be able to elevate Kessel’s game, and help Lupul to have a bounce back season. I’m not sure if it will directly translate to a playoff team, but it should keep the critics off Connolly’s (and to a lesser extent, Leafs management’s) back. After Richards was swept up off the market, Connolly was the best (free) option out there, and they added him to a good contract.
It’s hard to predict if Connolly will have a good season or not, but you can fully expect him to be thrust into a role where he’s expected to exceed. If it doesn’t work out, Connolly will be off the books in two years at the expense of $9.5 million. That’s chump change to MLSE.