Wednesday, January 20, 2016

It's Brett Conolly's Fault

Connolly in his natural habitat, not scoring.
There have been times this season when it seemed as though the sun revolved around the Earth. Early on, the Bruins' power play wasn't just the most dangerous offensive force in the NHL it was the only thing keeping them in games. They were blowing two goal leads and third period leads all over the place and their penalty kill was abysmal. The first two months or so, we had a bizarro Bruins and it looked like Don Sweeney's first season as general manager was going to be an utter disaster. The Chara window had closed. Blow up the team at the trade deadline and rebuild around Bergeron, Krejci, Pastrnak, and Rask.

But then, the Bruins figured things out. Their structure tightened. Kevan Miller came back from a stretch of healthy scratches at a much higher level of play. Even without Chris Kelly, the penalty kill fixed itself and is now as good as it has ever been. Colin Miller has been making steady progress. Brad Marchand has taken a big step forward as a goal scorer. Spooner is getting better every game. Vetrano, Ferraror and Tyler Randall are all contributing. Rask, after a shaky start, is now, back in his usual spot as an elite NHL goal tender. The team can now trust Gustafson. Krejci, before his most recent injury, was shredding opponents in the offensive zone, and Patrice Bergeron, along with everything else he's called up to do for this team, is the leading scorer and taking another big step towards the Hall of Fame. And the power play is still the most dangerous offensive force in the NHL.

But the Bruins are still only a wild card team, and with the East as ridiculously tight as it is, very vulnerable. They are fourth in their division and seventh in the conference with 3 or even 6 teams within easy striking distance. They're 5-4-1 in their last 10 (as of this writing), but 3 of those 5 wins came in their last 3 games. They blow leads. They are inconsistent.

And it's Brett Connolly's fault.

Even in the controlled space of sports, there is still enough chaos that both blame and accolades are impossible to definitively distribute, especially in team sports. We can make educated guesses, but there is still luck, there are still decisions beyond a player's control, there is still the schedule, the referees, the surface of the ice. Simply put, there is only so much any player, even the greatest players can do to influence the outcome of the game.

But Brett Connolly was brought to the Bruins to score. After eye-popping numbers in juniors, impressive numbers in the AHL, and one hell of a snap shot, it looked like Brett Connolly was about to make the transition to being a goal scorer in the NHL. Probably not a 40-goal scorer, or even a 30 goal scorer, but definitely a 20-25 goal scorer. That's why the Bruins got him last year in their attempt to make the playoffs. But right now he has 6 goals in 43 games and the gap between goal 6 and goal 7 continues to grow. Frank Vatrano has 6 goals in 30 games. Tyler Randall 4 in 20. Pastrnak 4 in 14.

The job of the General Manager is to present the head coach with an array of talent and most often that includes a mix of top players and role players. Top players use their talent to contribute in all parts of the game, whereas role players are expected to do well in specific parts of the game and hold their own in the others. So even if Connolly were just level with Jimmy Hayes (who, it should be noted, got 40% of his current goals in a blowout of the Senators) or Matt Beleskey, at 8 goals, both of which I think we'd still consider as under-performing, the Bruins could easily be second in their division or even their conference. A team can struggle when top players aren't contributing, but also when role players fail to fulfill their roles, even when they play well in other aspects of the game.

Which is why I feel doubly bad for calling out Brett Connolly. Not only is it rare for blame to be reasonably affixed to an individual player, but he has actually been playing pretty well. He is winning puck battles along the boards. He is playing well in the defensive zone. He is getting opportunities. But when you go through the Bruins' recent personnel moves, extrapolate the various players' roles, and look at their stats, Jimmy Hayes at 10 goals and 11 assists for 21 points seems OK, even if you want to see his +/- a bit better, and Belesky at 8 and 14 for 22 is lower than what we'd like but not catastrophically so, especially when he's sitting on a +10, and the B's haven't gotten much from Talbot and Rinaldo, but I don't think they expected much from either one of them.

In short, if you imagine what Don Sweeny saw when he looked at his roster this summer, and what he expected to get from every player on that list, really only Connolly is not meeting the expectations.

This is mostly good news, especially given how the Bs started this season. They are in the playoff structure, have sorted out the problems caused by adopting a new system, have maintained the success of their power play, and Brett Connolly (or anybody else) isn't dragging the team down despite his struggles with his particular role. And if the Bruins want to make a deal before the trade deadline, assuming no injuries, they know what they need; someone to make up for the 10-15 goals expected from Connolly that haven't materialized. And, it should be noted he could always turn his season around, go on a hot streak, and land the 20 or so goals the Bruins expected from him.

Though the Bruins don't necessarily need to do anything, I think the “healthy scratch” is under-utilized coaching tool that might do Connolly a lot of good. First off all, given how much of playoff success is drawn from, if not based on, the health of key players, I'd like to see Julien use the healthy scratch as a way of preserving the health of players in general. Second, I don't think it would be that difficult to re-frame the healthy scratch away from punishment for poor play and towards a learning opportunity. You can see things watching a game that you simply can't playing a game. Third, it matters who is also in the booth with you. From what I've seen, Connolly's biggest problem might be his spacing, that he is not quite in the right place to cash in on his opportunities. Loui Erikkson is very good at being in the place to score goals, so maybe giving Connolly a two or three game break with one of those games with Loui Erikkson with him to talk through spacing around the front of the net is exactly what he needs to break out of his goal scoring slump and help the Bruins secure a playoff berth. And you know, it probably wouldn't be that bad of an idea to check his hand.

So, where do the Bruins go from here? What does the rest of the season hold? Have you been watching the season? Did you think the Capitals were finally going to pull it together? And what happened out West with the Kings and everybody else? And what happened to the Canadiens? Sure, Price going down is big, but as far as I know, Markov is technically not injured. And how are the Penguins so bad? And what the hell happened with John Scott? And how the hell do the Bruins, the Claude Julien Boston Bruins have the best power play in the league, by a wide, wide margin. I'm not much of a fan of prognostication in general, but anyone who says they know what's going to happen to any team in the NHL this season is lying to themselves.

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