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Connolly Could Flourish With Leafs

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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There aren’t many players like Tim Connolly.

He is a top-10 draft choice who didn’t flop. He didn’t become a franchise player. Nor did he recast himself as a defensive specialist although he did enjoy considerable success as a
penalty killer for his old team, the Buffalo Sabres

Connolly is damned near undefinable. If he were Russian, people would use the word enigmatic. While he is coming to Toronto for a fresh start after eight seasons downstream, he is largely what he was when he came into the league: a player with great hands and footspeed who has the ability to be if not a special player than a very good one.

But there have always been the usual caveats. If he found the right system, the right coaches and linemates, the right city, media, fan base and most of all, if he stayed free of injury.

Connolly has, as you know,  lost large blocks of time to concussions. Lindy Ruff’s defence-first system was clearly not built on his strengths. His uninspiring point total in every season save for 2009-2010 (when his assist total was 19th in the league) as well as more than meagre production in the post-season made it difficult to find love in Buffalo. This was a player due to move.

So with Phil Kessel’s massive talent one side, and a worthy generalist in Joffrey Lupul  on the other, what is the future for Tim Connolly?

At first blush, I could not think of one player to compare with Connolly so I went looking for a precedent. I found some and they became fodder for two contrasting theories.

1. The Bunny Theory: This by the way has nothing to do with Bugs Bunny in drag but I do wonder what those guys were doing all those Friday afternoons over on the Warner Brother’s lot. The Bunny theory dictates that if it has a big fluffy tail, long ears, long whiskers, a cute nose, red eyes and a prominent overbite it’s a bunny. You might not want it to be a bunny. You may want it to be aardvark but it is a bunny nonetheless and no amount of wishing will make it anything other than what it is.

Which means, by extension, that the great reckoning will bring a player in Tim Connolly who averages a tidy .62 points per game in the past and will do so in the foreseeable future. That’s demonstrably better than the 15 goals and 32 points Tyler Bozak turned in with the same two wingers Connolly will inherit.

The problem, of course, is that the Leafs need something a little more helpful than an upgrade. They need a guy who can push Kessel to 40 goals as well as revive the mordant power play. Other than his abundant talent, there is not much to induce you to believe he is that player.

2. The Change of Venue/Player Hits Prime Theory: There are, have been and always will be players who around 30 years old find their mojo, often under fresh circumstances.

Time for a little math. I looked at players who went in the top 10 of the first round to compare against Connolly who went number five to the Islanders in 1999.

Then I looked for players whose career points per game totals were comparable to Connolly’s .62 points per game. Then I winnowed the list a little more by comparing the remaining players scoring totals in their 30th and 31st years against their career marks. I figured if you found players with similar career totals and matched their 30 and 31st years, you would get a general look at how players thrived in what  most people agree is their late prime.

It’s not overly scientific and I’m sure there will plenty of readers with better comparables. Brother Patrick, a rollicking personality from my high school days went to his grave swearing I was the only person he could not teach math, so bear that in mind. Since there are plenty of discrepancies on when the birthdays and what constitutes a player’s 30th and 31st rules…you get the idea.

But here is the deal.

Player Career PPG PPG at 30, 31 Difference
Daniel Cleary (08-09, 09-10) .45 .53 +.08
Olli Jokinen (08-09, 09-10) .64 .79 +.15
Viktor Kozlov (06-07, 07-08) .59 .62 +.03
Chris Gratton (05-06, 06-07) .52 .47 -.05
Cory Stillman (03-04, 05-06) .70 1.02 +.32
Vyacheslav Kozlov (06-07, 07-08) .72 .77 +.05

So what you get is a complete mash. Gratton went down. Cory Stillman went through the roof. Jokinen surged. The two Kozlov’s bumped their totals up while Cleary’s improvement was appreciable.

Cleary’s subject years came in his second and third season with Detroit. Stillman’s first year was in St. Louis. His second was in Carolina and he had the lockout in between.  Jokinen changed teams twice.

What have we learned? Lots of good players prosper in the midpoint of their careers when inserted into what clearly is the right situation at the right time. Others tread waters. Some fall off.

It is possible that Tim Connolly will be THAT GUY, the guy who finds himself on the cover of The Hockey News at Christmas and tops every informal poll for comeback player of the year, even if he isn’t coming back from anything.  Can he bank 75 points and 25 goals?

Well, comparable improvements have been posted by comparable players at comparable moments of their careers.

Despite the obvious sway of the rabbit theory, it is possible.
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