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Connolly Is The Playmaker

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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Tim Connolly is laid-back.

“I’m more of a quiet guy,” he said after an informal scrimmage Wednesday at the MasterCard Centre.

“Maybe in the locker room behind the scenes I’m a little more vocal. I tend to just hang in the background and let the other guys take the spotlight.”

In conversation the Leafs new go-to centre answers every question politely but comes off as a little shy. His answers aren’t big on specifics. When he talks about off-season training he doesn’t mention his weight or the specifics of his routine. When he talks about the changes in diet that become mandatory in the ten years between 20 and 30, he offers no example. Mario Lemieux used to say he was getting in shape when he stopped taking gravy on his fries.

But there is one subject on which Tim Connolly, the owner of 277 assists compared to 118 goals, is darn near effusive.

The beauty, the absolute magic of the pass.

The pass to hockey is what a triple is to baseball. When implemented beautifully, it dwarfs anything else you will see. A net is a stationary target. Try moving at 20 km an hour, spying a guy 30 feet away going just as fast and putting a pass over a guys stick and through another’s skates.

Now factor in choppy ice, players who accidentally drift by accident into lanes and the hand skills of the receiver.

That’s why a pass, not a goal, is the lifeblood of hockey. Goalscorers don’t thrive without passers. Passers on the other hand, make everyone better. That’s the gig.

Connolly has never scored more than 18 goals in his career. His high-water mark of 48 assists, struck in 2009-2010 with the Sabres represents eight more than any Leaf garnered last season. Another former Sabre, Clarke MacArthur led the Leafs club with 41. No one else finished higher than Phil Kessel’s 32.

Kessel, of course, is the guy you want to win the Cy Young. Assists are nice enough. The play is supposed to end, rightly or wrongly, with Kessel.

Fine by Connolly.

“I have always been more of a playmaker. I think setting up guys and making a good breakout pass and making it easier for the guys around me is an important part of the game.”

It’s also the most fun.

Usually, it starts with the bait and switch.

“The idea is to draw someone in or draw the goalie, beat somebody with a quick move or pulling up,” he said.

Then comes the real work. Connolly uses tape to study his teammates. He watches their tendencies in games. He goes to dinner with them and buzzes them on preferences that have nothing to do with rare or well done.

“Whoever you play with you are going to have to take a lot of time on the ice, figuring out what guys like to do and what their tendencies are. We will talk what you like to do in different areas of the rink. The more you communicate the better it is for everybody out there.”

When a shooter misses the net on a one-timer, it is usually assumed that the shot was faulty.
Connolly says you should save some blame for the playmaker.

“You have to know exactly where the guy wants the puck, whether he wants it on his front foot, back foot, how fast he is going, you have to put it right there.”

“The difference between a goal and not scoring is often the guy who makes the pass.”

An appreciation of the art of the exchange comes with the job.

“Right now I’d say the best passers might be the Sedin brothers, the way those little passes to spring one another.  Joe Thornton is right up there as well.”

Which brings us to the playmaker’s creed: without the fancy passing, you’re just a passing fancy.
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