Connolly Goal Could Be Pivotal for Struggling Forward

If you thought Brett Connolly would score the game winning goal for the Bruins on Monday night, when they took on the Flyers in Philadelphia, you probably hold optimistic the belief that Charlie will someday score a date with the waitress on the Philly-themed comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

To those who raised their hand, good for you, the world needs more of that attitude. So keep fighting the fight.

Of course, Connolly scored the winner for the B’s on Monday with 1:54 remaining in what turned out to be a 3-2 decision in favor of Boston. Connolly’s first goal on a shot contested by a goaltender (he scored an empty-netter on Jan. 15 in Buffalo) since Nov. 27, the goal erased a 23-plus game drought. And he didn’t even have to write a musical to do it.

Through 45 games, Connolly now has seven goals in what has been a frustrating campaign in the attacking zone for the 23-year-old. Acquired from Tampa Bay at the March 2 trade deadline in 2015, the hope for the winger was he would inch closer to the potential seen when he was drafted sixth overall in 2010, one pick shy of a top five that included Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, and Ryan Johansen while being one pick ahead of Jeff Skinner and ten prior to Vladimir Tarasenko.

The signs of Connolly starting to realize that potential in the NHL were beginning to show in Tampa during the 2014-15 season, scoring 12 goals in 55 games for the eventual Prince of Wales Trophy winner. Numbers not eye-popping, but progress, as entered the season with six goals in 79 games.

There was reason to believe growth would continue. Connolly’s goals-per-game rate tripled during his 2014-15 slate of games in Tampa, up to 0.21 from 0.07 from his 2011 debut to the end of the 2013-14 season. Again, to say he’s nowhere close to approaching Seguin/Tarasenko territory would be to state the obvious.

The pessimist will say he’s regressed in Boston. Not an outlandish statement. The goals-per-game rate that spiked to a rate of roughly a goal every five games, a pace of 18 over an 82-game season (WE KNOW HE’S NOT SEGUIN, STOP BRINGING HIM UP) has dropped to a 0.14 rate over 50 games in black and gold, which equates to 11.5 over 82 games. So 11 if you don’t like him, 12 if you do.

Signs for Connolly are pointing up based on his recent play. While he just three points in his last nine games, one of which coming of the empty net variety, the point total doesn’t do his game justice, as don’t most when a player is ‘snakebit’. He’s a plus-six while logging much of his time alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, a line that has been highly-productive over that stretch.

Based on his talent, Connolly belongs up top with those two. He’s a big, strong winger with a top-six skillset. It’s what made him a high draft pick in 2010, after scoring 40 goals in 81 games over two WHL seasons going into the draft. He went back in 2010-11 and scored 46 in 59 for Prince George, where he’d starred for the prior two seasons.

While his potential of replicating New York Rangers winger Rick Nash (whom Connolly drew many comparisons to as an amateur) looks to be out of the equation at this point, the window for Connolly to be a productive NHLer remains open. And his offensive woes, the primary point of criticism, should be helped by getting on the board.

The psychological barrier overcome by getting that goal should show in the coming games. He’ll continue to skate alongside Bergeron and Marchand the proverbial monkey off the back shows on the scoresheet. That will only enhance his total.

There’s plenty of examples over the years, where goals have come in bunches following droughts. There’s plenty examples of the latter case as well.

Bruins fans need not look any further than the case of Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes, a pair of forwards who endured stretches of being unable to generate crooked numbers in the “G” column of the scoresheet.

Beleskey, while not carrying nearly the same pedigree as Connolly from his amateur days (he was a fourth-round pick in 2006), was similar to the 23-year-old forward in that he experience a career-year in 2014-15 as a member of the Anaheim Ducks, his 22 goals doubling his previous high (11, 2009-10) and 32 points surpassing his career-high of 24 (2013-14).

After his performance carried over into the Stanley Cup playoffs, where he scored eights goals in 16 games as Anaheim made a run to the Western Conference finals, Beleskey signed a five-year, $20 million deal with the Bruins. It didn’t begin well.

Beleskey scored just two goals in his first 21 games as a Bruin, including a 13-game drought, which came to an end on Dec. 4, scoring in a 5-4 overtime loss at Calgary. The two-point performance kicked off a 13-game stretch in which he scored five goals, a productive stretch that was preceded by a stretch of strong play that didn’t show in the box score.

However, Beleskey has cooled back down, with just a goal in 12 games. His 0.17 goals-per-game this year (eight goals in 46 games) is half of his pace last season (0.34).

Hayes is an even better comparison when suggesting what Connolly could do in the coming games. Hayes was traded to Boston over the summer after scoring a career-high 19 goals for Florida the year before. A big, strong forward who has the ability to create havoc around the net, there was a belief he was only getting better. It didn’t look that way for a while.

Hayes scored just four times in his first 27 games in Boston. A goal in a Dec. 16 win over Pittsburgh erased a 15-game scoring drought. He now has seven goals in his last 19 games. With 11 goals in 46 games, his pace of 0.24 goals-per-game matches his output in 125 games with the Panthers from 2013-15, when he scored 30 goals, a goals-per-game rate that matches his 2015-16 number.

The comparisons with Hayes and Beleskey could prove helpful or misleading. As state before, there’s instances of goals coming in bunches, as well as goals coming few and far between. We’ll see in the coming weeks.

But getting on the board was a good start for Connolly.

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