Leading up to last February’s NHL trade deadline, there was a lot of talk about the Boston Bruins acquiring veteran forwards for that late season push to make the postseason after struggling to put together sustained stretches of high-level play and wins.
That’s why it came as a mild surprise when Peter Chiarelli pulled the trigger on a deal for then-22-year-old Brett Connolly, the sixth overall selection in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The move raised eyebrows because ‘Bolts GM Steve Yzerman was moving on from his first-ever draft choice with that organization, a player who had been selected just four spots after Chiarelli tabbed Tyler Seguin. Unlike Seguin, Connolly was dealt for different reasons, and ironically enough- the player whom Boston hoped would help them earn enough points to get into the dance was felled in his very first practice with the team, missing all but five of the final 18 games, as the B’s came up short on the last night of the regular season.
Connolly arrived to pro hockey with great expectations, and at least thus far, has been a disappointment given where he was drafted. After signing a one year, $1.075 million “show me” extension with the B’s, he is in position to establish himself as a legitimate top-six NHL right wing this season on a team that was starved for goals at the 22nd overall position for offense after finishing third overall in 2013-14.
In this post, we’ll take a look at Connolly then and now- and try to project what he’ll bring to Boston at age 23.
Then (the 2010 NHL draft and beyond): A little over five years ago, questions swirled around Connolly’s long-term viability because of a serious hip injury he sustained early in the 2009-10 season, which limited him to just 16 games (10 goals) for the Prince George Cougars of the WHL. A season after posting 30 goals as a rookie, Connolly was seen as the consensus top WHL player available in the 2010 NHL draft class, and though Portland Winterhawks forward Nino Niederreiter would move up to edge him by just one draft position (NY Islanders) in Los Angeles, most conceded that given a full and healthy season, Connolly had impressive potential.
Take a look at this NHL draft profile, which features the late great Central Scouting director, E.J. McGuire, former Maine Mariners coach, who lost his battle with cancer in 2011. RIP E.J.- a true class act who did so much for the CSS when he was in charge.
Here are excerpts from the profile I did on Connolly for my 2010 Bruins Draft Watch blog, which some of you may or may not remember.
One of the most skilled and dangerous forwards in the draft had an injury-marred campaign and faces questions about his lower body’s long-term health..Excellent skater with a flash initial burst and ability to separate when observed last season before his hip problems flared up during the Ivan Hlinka tourney in August ’09. A dynamic presence when fully healthy and on top of his game: darts into open spaces with the puck and can wire it into the back of the net in the blink of an eye. Has that offensive zone killer instinct you want in your forwards; takes the puck to the net and shows off some real grit when it comes time to pay the price down low and in front of the net.
His health was the biggest obstacle facing Connolly, as he returned to action for the Under 18 championship tournament in April, but did not look all that effective after such a long layoff. Here are the downsides to him as I saw them back in June of 2010:
Faces some major scrutiny in light of serious hip flexor injuries this season that shelved him for all of 16 games. Looked strong in a late-season stint in the WHL, but raised real concerns with his tentative, ineffective performance for Team Canada at the World Under-18 tourney in Belarus in April. Lacked explosiveness and jump in his stride. Word out of the NHL combine is that the hips aren’t chronic problems, but with the failure of New Jersey 2001 first-round pick Adrian Foster still fresh in a lot of minds, many teams can’t afford to gamble. Not an overly physical player despite a long frame that will bulk up in the next few years. Needs to add a lot of mass/fill out his lanky build.
My draft day and after projection for Connolly was this (after mocking him to Dallas with the 11th pick):
He’s got all the tools you look for in a high-end scoring wing, and it’s a shame that he had such problems with injuries this season, because it robbed him of the chance to generate a potentially intriguing draft subplot to challenge Hall and Seguin near the top. Now, he’s caught in that limbo/Twilight Zone between those publications that are steadfast in their belief that he’ll go off the board around No. 5 overall, and those who are a little more conservative and who think NHL teams will take some safer options rather than risk taking a player who could be damaged goods and never again look like the 16-year-old who scored 30 goals in the WHL. Bostonians know all too well how devastating bad hips are to a hockey player; it was a degenerative hip condition that forced Cam Neely to tearfully hobble away from the game he loved at just 31 years of age in what was a memorably heart-wrenching press conference. Teams who don’t take the potential disaster of a player who faces a lifetime of being day-to-day the way Neely was over the last five years of his career seriously may jump on Connolly well inside the top-10, but they do so knowing that if he can’t go, it could cost the jobs of those management and personnel types who made that call.
Okay, so the hip hasn’t proven to be all that big a factor, though he’s had other health issues (more on that later). Tampa grabbed him early and he appeared to justify that faith in 2010-11, as he put his hip woes behind him to the tune of 46 goals in 59 WHL games. That was good enough for the team to sign him and give him a shot in the NHL for the 2011-12 campaign, but he had a bit part, scoring just 4 goals and 15 points in 68 games. With the lockout occurring the following year, he began the season with Tampa’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse and stayed there, scoring 31 goals and leading the Crunch to the AHL championship series. Unable to lock down an NHL job the following year, Connolly had another solid if unspectacular AHL outing in 2013-14 (21 goals, 57 points in 66 games).
Now: A year ago, Connolly made the big club, but found himself skating on the bottom-six, where he was able to score a respectable 12 goals in 50 games at the time of his trade to Boston.
Much was hoped for when he arrived, but a freak injury suffered when a Dennis Seidenberg shot in practice caused a displaced fracture in his right index finger, forcing him out of action for the next five weeks. He got into Boston’s last five games (2 assists) but could not have been 100 percent- especially for a shooter who needs his hands to be at his most effective.
For a club that gave up a pair of second-round selections in 2015 (Tampa took Peterborough Petes d-man Matt Spencer) and 2016, losing Connolly when they needed him most was one more added insult to injury (pun intended), but he has never played more than 71 games in any of his pro seasons whether spent in the AHL or NHL. There always seems to be some kind of physical issue preventing him from playing a full 82-game schedule.
“Obviously, it’s tough for him coming off his hand (injury) right when he got here, but he’s got a natural ability to skate,” B’s defenseman Zach Trotman said this week when asked about the player he competed against in the AHL and was teammates in Boston with to close out last season. “He’s a really good skater and he’s got a good shot even with his hand being…I don’t know what percentage it was at the end of the season but I’m sure it wasn’t full. He seemed pretty hungry and anxious to get the puck to the net and go in after it. I’m not going to project on what line he’d be or anything, but as far as skill goes, he’s got that hunger and he’s got that ability to skate and get the puck on net and just having those tools alone is going to be very advantageous for our team and I’m excited to see him play more this year fully healed and see what all he can do. I thought at the end of the year he was impressive and his speed and skill will help make the pace of our team faster.”
Trotman may not predict what line Connolly will be on, but I’ll take a stab. He’ll work in early on the bottom-six with special teams time on the power play, but I think the Bruins are hoping he and Jimmy Hayes will give them enough confidence to perhaps have the confidence to trade Loui Eriksson to open up some breathing room on that right side. This is not a slight to the veteran Eriksson, but with his impending unrestricted free agency, the team cannot afford to be sentimental. If neither Connolly nor Hayes are up to the task to take on more of a scoring role for the B’s, then Claude Julien may stick with Eriksson, as he is a more proven player at this stage of his career. However, with just $3.5 million invested in the two younger wingers, that salary flexibility is how a team like Boston can get further out of the cap hell that dogged them the last two years, forcing the parting of ways with key contributors and fan favorites like Johnny Boychuk, Jarome Iginla, Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton.
Nobody said building a Stanley Cup-caliber team would be easy, but it goes without saying that if Connolly can develop into a 25-30 or more goal scorer this year for the B’s, Don Sweeney would have more options open to him to make the club better in the present and longer term. Of course- that kind of success comes at a price and if Connolly comes through with a season like that, he’ll be looking at a hefty raise in 2016.
All in due time, I suppose- and first things first. There’s a hockey season to play…in the meantime, Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita & Billy Zabka know what we’re talking about in the style of Survivor.