A Closer Look at Brett Connolly's Rookie Season
Brett Connolly, you may have noticed, has been a polarizing figure for some time now. From the day he was drafted, really, as his gum-chewing and detached demeanor during an interview rubbed some the wrong way. Subsequent appearances have not helped much to alleviate the general perception of Connolly as cold and aloof, the antithesis to the ebullient Steven Stamkos. Perhaps, too, the early returns Anaheim and Carolina have received from Cam Fowler and Jeff Skinner may have had some fans wondering if Yzerman chose the wrong kid in 2010. However, a lackluster personality and not developing as quickly as others can easily be forgiven.
That Connolly's immediate future within the Lightning organization has come into question, though, is mostly a result of his roller-coaster of a rookie season during which he seemed to spend more time plummeting than climbing. The late-season signings and professional debuts of J.T. Brown and Alex Killorn as well as AHL MVP Cory Conacher earning a contract are significant factors too, but the discussion truly begins and ends with Connolly's own performance, of which opinions seem to range from entirely disastrous to, at best, disappointing. The prescriptions vary, too, from calls to bury Connolly in Syracuse for at least a season, starting him there with the expectation he'll earn a call-up, having him battle for an available roster spot in training camp and even reserving one for him so as to avoid crushing his confidence.
If there is an NHL season, we'll see which option the organization thinks best for Brett but for quite some time now I've been more interested in revisiting the very reason for the debate. I wanted to try and gauge whether or not Connolly was really as bad--offensively and defensively--in his rookie season as some have claimed and I wanted to dig deeper than his basic season stat line, my own subjective impressions formed during the season and even what select viewings of game footage might suggest.
I've previously cited the analytical benefits of Player Usage Charts. The Lightning's chart is the first piece of evidence I consulted in order to build some context for the ice time Connolly did see:
Boucher, whom Clare Austin pointed out in her review of the charts, appears to have "favored specialists over generalists" but Connolly, the unproven rookie, and Malone stand out as exceptions to the rule in that they lack a clearly defined role given their placement in the chart. This makes sense given they both spent even-strength time on the top and bottom lines over the course of the season. We can see Connolly skated against somewhat, though not overly, challenging opposition and also that the on-ice puck possession was slightly negative but probably more a byproduct of skating a good chunk of his even-strength minutes on the lower lines over the course of the season than anything else. Austin speculated as to whether "he'd have been more productive in a more 'sheltered' role." When you consider his distribution of ice time with other players, one can only wonder how Boucher could have done that without skating Connolly almost exclusively on the top lines.
And, although he cautions reading too much into usage of players from different teams, Rob Vollman created rookie usage charts which provide an additional frame of reference:
One of the biggest the story lines surrounding Connolly last season, which flowed from the team and filtered through the media, focused on his demotion to the lower lines and reduced ice time due to poor defensive play and his need to work on that side of his game, a development Connolly was humble enough to admit to at the time:
"I have to get better in my defensive end," Connolly said. "It's a work in progress. It's a matter of me getting better as a hockey player -- (even) if that means I have to play on the fourth line and not play as much and focus on the D zone."
It's interesting that Connolly's defensive struggles became such a defining narrative for his season and yet, it turns out he had the third-lowest goals against rate per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time and the second-highest even-strength on-ice save % among all Lightning players who played more than 20 games. Is this to say that Connolly was actually a polished defensive presence for the bulk of last season? No, of course not. However, the notion he was a consistent liability doesn't hold up, either, as it's not likely teammates he skated with on the lower lines who had difficulty maintaining possession and generating shots without him, nor those he skated with on the top lines looked to mainly for their offense were protecting him.
Perhaps the most powerful charge lobbed Connolly's way, and probably the greatest source of frustration, is that he struggled to score. Indeed, his adjusted shooting % (factoring in missed shots as well), averaging both his even-strength and power play rates, was about 2%. That's absurdly low, one of the worst in the league among those who played at least 20 games last season and partially explains the team's struggle to score with him on the ice (his playing on the lower lines seems significant too). This, too, despite Connolly and his linemates getting their fair share of opportunities--the team was almost possession-neutral over the course of the season--while he was on the ice.
The Lightning, of course, don't need advanced stats to know skating a thoroughbred on the bottom lines is less than ideal and would adversely impact his production. It's clear having Connolly become more well-rounded was a key goal, but his handling last season also smacks, to some extent, of proverbial rookie treatment. Perhaps that's the other part of the story that will remain untold. Circling back, it does seem fair to say that Connolly's rookie season was extremely disappointing albeit mostly, as it turns out, from an offensive--not defensive--standpoint. As what to expect for him moving forward, that's an entirely separate discussion that, for now, will have to wait.