After 11 troubled seasons of rarely living up to anyone’s expectations, Tim Connolly enters the fishbowl that is Toronto hockey and almost certainly this will be either a grand new beginning or a painful end.
The opportunity for the skilled and underachieving centreman has never been so apparent. He will centre the Maple Leafs’ first line with high scorer Phil Kessel playing to his right. He will either play the point or be the set up man on the Leafs’ first power play. From the start, he will be afforded star minutes and be given every chance to be the man the Leafs have been lacking since Mats Sundin departed.
“What he does with the opportunity is the question,” said Mike Milbury, who drafted Connolly with the New York Islanders. “When we took him, we were thrilled to get him. We thought he was the best player in the (1999) draft. We were glad some other players were taken before us (Patrik Stefan and Pavel Brendl, to name two). We thought, at 5, we were getting a great player. Man, could he dangle. What skill level...”
That’s what everybody seems to say about Connolly before their voice drops off. What skill level ... and then they finish the sentence with “it’s really too bad,” or “it’s a shame what’s happened to him.”
When you ask hockey people questions about Connolly the first thing they ask in return is: “Can we go off the record?” They want to tell you the story or at least their version of the story. They just don’t want their names attached to the Maple Leafs’ $9.5 million signing. Among the terms used to describe Connolly are: Soft. Sullen.
Difficult. Loner. Spoiled brat. Silver spoon kid. Entitled. Not a team player. Almost the opposite of what you expect most hockey players to be.
And one more thing: Supremely skilled.
“We thought he would be great for us,” said Milbury, who traded him after two seasons to Buffalo in a deal for Michael Peca after a trade with Boston for Jason Allison fell through. “It just didn’t work out for us the way we thought it would with Tim.”
The Maple Leafs had almost no choice with Connolly. After missing on Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in trades and then missing out on Brad Richards in free agency, they had to take a bit of a step backwards. Connolly became Plan C or D. For a team desperate to fill a need at centre, he became the only viable, if questionable solution. And now the Leafs will ask Connolly to do what he’s never been able to do for any meaningful period of time.
Sherry Bassin says to fully understand the Connolly story, you have to go back to the beginning. Bassin was general manager of the Erie Otters when Connolly was the bright young light of the franchise. Connolly had a strong first season in junior, was lighting it up in his second season when he broke his leg. And in the same draft in which Brian Burke stole the headlines by dealing with Rick Dudley so he could draft both Sedin twins, the Islanders were thrilled to see Connolly available.
After just a year and a half of junior hockey, Connolly made the Islanders team as a rookie and it was then his progression began to halt.
“The first mistake in Connolly’s career was being kept by the Islanders,” said Bassin. “He wasn’t ready for the NHL. He should have been sent back to junior. I remember going to a game and talking to Butch Goring (Islanders’ coach) about him. Butch said to me ‘I can’t play the kid, he’s not ready. What am I supposed to do with him?’
“I don’t care what profession you’re in — doctor, lawyer, hockey player, reporter — you have to go through the right steps of development to make it big. He hadn’t yet dominated in junior. He hadn’t yet led his team. He missed out on that step.”
Quite possibly, he never recovered from it.
“I’ve known Tim Connolly and his family a long time and contrary to the rumours about him, we never had any off ice issues with him,” said Bassin. “He was a kid from a high achieving family. His father was very successful. His mother was very successful. His sisters were successful. You would think he would follow in their paths.
“You can understand what’s happened to him. His career was jump-started before he was ready. He wasn’t properly developed and then the injuries came. You can’t tell me that all the things that have happened to him haven’t had a profound affect on his development.”
In Buffalo, the last six seasons, Connolly has been both in and out, up and down, often out of favour. There are all kinds of negative numbers. He has missed 36% of all Sabres games post-lockout — and that coming after he missed the entire 2003-04 season with post concussion syndrome. His personal injury list includes concussions, bone spurs, cracked vertebrae, broken ribs: He has played 302 NHL games, missed 252 with various hurts. And as for his post-season game, he has not scored a goal in his last 29 Stanley Cups games. Despite having what Milbury describes as “ridiculous talent” he has only had two seasons with more than 50 points scored. He has never scored 20 goals in an NHL season despite having “one helluva shot.”
And this season, with the Sabres going from low budget to high spending, the decision was made to walk away. The determination was rather basic really. In order to spend what new owner Terry Pegula wanted to spend, he needed general manager Darcy Regier to let some players leave. Connolly was one of those players.
This came after a playoff game in which Connolly skated to the Sabres bench and was asked by a television announcer why he was so glum. His answer, paraphrased: How would you feel if the entire arena hated you?
“That’s the question I would have with Connolly?” an NHL executive said, being told the story “The talent is still there. But is the commitment level there? Is the willingness there? That we’ll find out. Toronto didn’t make a bad move here. They did the only thing that was available to them. So here comes the opportunity for Connolly but with it goes accountability. That’s the part I wonder about, that’s the part everybody wonders about. I think Brian Burke and Ron Wilson will have their hands full here.”
Harry Neale wonders somewhat himself but after years of watching Connolly play with the Sabres, Neale figures a change of scenery might be just what he needs at this late stage of his career.
“He’s getting away from his unpleasant circumstances,” said Neale, the former coach who does television analysis on Sabres games. “If you go to Toronto, under the microscope and get a chance to play 18-20 minutes a game, on the top line and on the power play, I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t react well to that. I’ve seen a lot of guys that need a change of scenery. He’s going to a team that’s getting better and Connolly is capable of helping them get better. But he has to stay healthy. Every time he starts going, it seems like another setback comes.
“Some guys revel in the pressure of Toronto. Some guys get eaten up by it. I think this may be the best thing to happen to Connolly.”
Bassin plans on meeting with Connolly before the summer ends. “I know this kid and he knows he has something to prove,” said Bassin. “There are going to be significant expectations, significant opportunities for him in Toronto. We’re going to find out how strong he is. I’m going to tell him to his face. It’s your time. You’ve got to be ready for it. It may never come again.”