It wasn’t exactly the road he would have wanted to take, but during this upcoming season, Brett Connolly may finally be looked upon to be a key piece in his team’s offense.
The Washington Capitals need it. Connolly certainly wants to showcase the skill that made him a top ten pick in his draft year.
Originally drafted sixth overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010, it has been a long road for the now 25-year-old Connolly but the upcoming season provides an unprecedented opportunity for the winger.
Even before factoring last season, the Capitals may lean on Connolly to play a bigger role thanks to their current salary cap crunch.
After signing T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov to long-term contracts, that didn’t leave much money to do anything during free agency. To get under the salary cap, Washington had to move Marcus Johansson, a career Capital who was their first round pick back in 2009. Trading Johansson to New Jersey left another hole in the team’s top six. Due to the contracts given out to their own players, the Capitals will have no choice but look inside the organization to fill the gap.
Brett Connolly has breakout season
During his last season with the Prince George Cougars of the WHL, Connolly registered nearly a goal per game, burying the puck in the back of the net 46 times in just 59 games. He also scored 30 goals two years prior as a 16/17-year-old during his first full season of junior hockey.
The goal scoring prowess is there, it has always been a matter of getting the right opportunity to put it all together at the NHL level.
Unfortunately, that was with the Lightning, the team that drafted him. He was eventually traded to the Boston Bruins. In his only full season there he posted a career high of 25 points. Even after that, Boston didn’t qualify him and he ended up in Washington.
Connolly did most of his damage at even strength, at a rate that was among the best in the entire league.
His 1.26 goals-per-60 minutes (G/60) was not only good enough for 2nd on the Capitals but was 13th best in the NHL among forwards who played at least 500 minutes at even strength (stats courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com).
Scoring 14 of his 15 goals at even strength was made to look easy with an impressively high shooting percentage. He ranked 7th among the same group of forwards with an 18.92% mark.
New contract, new role?
A restricted free agent for the last time, the Capitals and Connolly agreed upon a new two-year contract, worth $3 million.
That kind of money over that term, a player would generally expect to find himself somewhere in the bottom six. In a perfect world, that is probably where the Capitals would like to have Connolly. Washington’s situation might force him into more than that.
With just over $4 million in cap space, the Capitals have only ten forwards, and five defensemen under contract for the upcoming season. At some point they are going to need to add three more players. That can be internally or looking elsewhere, just to field a full line-up.
Most teams carry at least an extra player or two as healthy scratches.
Just when it comes to the three they absolutely have, they currently have barely over $1 million to spend per roster spot. That’s definitely not enough to sign a legit top-nine forward, let alone top-six.
After trading Johansson, and Justin Williams signing elsewhere, that left two opening spots in the team’s top six. Andre Burakovsky will likely fill one of those, with Connolly the only likely player under contract that could make a case.
Former first round pick Jakub Vrana may eventually settle into that role, but a 21-year-old with just six points and 21 games under his belt, starting out as a top-six forward may not be ideal for a team that is expected to compete in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan division once again.
Expectations for 2017
Brett Connolly has yet to fully put everything together in the little chances he has gotten at the NHL level. He set a career high in assists two years ago with the Bruins, then followed that up by setting a new mark in goals the following season. Even in that – both times he totalled 25 and 23 points, respectively.
He was boosted by an extremely high shooting percentage that won’t be easy to repeat. Brett Connolly should get a boost from the fact he would be playing with some of the better playmakers in the league if he got elevated to a full-time top-six role.
Playing with Lars Eller and Jay Beagle are FAR different than playing with players like Burakovsky, Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom and Burakovsky had the 4th and 15th highest assists-per-60 minutes (A/60) in the league last year, respectively.
Just two years ago, Kuznetsov finished with the second most, trailing only Joe Thornton, and finishing .01 behind him for the league lead.
Seven years after being drafted with the hopes of riding shotgun with Steven Stamkos on the Lightning, Connolly could finally get that opportunity with the Capitals.
He’s finally getting a sense of security with the two-year deal. That will be the first multi-year deal of his career other than his entry-level contract.
Getting help from players on cheaper contracts won’t just be a bonus for the Capitals, in order to continue their success, it is going to have to be a necessity.
It’ll start with Connolly, who ready or not, is going to be thrust into a bigger role.
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