Tim Connolly: Rising Star
At last year’s draft Islanders GM Mike Milbury claimed that highly touted centerman Tim Connolly breaking his leg and missing half of his OHL season was a blessing. Connolly was on pace to score better than 50 goals and 100 points, which would have likely moved him up the draft charts. The skilled pivot was touted as the best stick handler in the draft and drew comparisons to the likes of Steve Yzerman. The Islanders brass were thrilled to take Tim with the 5th overall pick, the first of four first rounders.
Tim’s leg healed completely and he was in great shape for training camp. He had a strong camp, and though only 18, it was apparent that he was the most skilled player in the organization. Still, the Islanders were cautious about Connolly. They had made the mistake of rushing players into the NHL only to see their careers take a down turn before (see Dave Chyzowski, Eric Fichaud, and the jury is still out on Eric Brewer after a massive sophomore slump) and Tim had played only 46 games the year before. Hockey common place would be to let the phenom return to juniors, challenge for a scoring title, make a playoff run, and build up his confidence. However, the recent trade of super star Ziggy Palffy left the Islanders in dire need of a big time talent and fan draw in the lineup.
Like most rookies, Tim had his share of growing pains, but the obvious talent level has left long time Islander fans drooling over the future. While Connolly isn’t going to win the Calder Trophy, he quietly had an outstanding rookie campaign. His offensive abilities shone throughout the year as he posted several highlight real goals including, his first as he out waited Patrick Roy, a nifty backhander to beat Martin Brodeur after stick handling around the Devils defense, and a wrist shot that hit the top corner in Boston after sliding while stick handling across the crease on his knees.
While Tim and the rest of his teammates drew few headlines this year Connolly surpassed the offensive totals of every other centerman to play as an 18 year old in the past few years. His 14 goals and 34 points exceeded the totals of highly touted pivots and fellow top-ten picks Patrik Stefan, Joe Thornton, Vincent Lecavalier, and Patrick Marleau. Connolly played on every line throughout the year and saw time with just about every possible winger. His defensively play dramatically improved over the course of the year, and he was even killing penalties for the last month of the season. Tim did manage to find his way into the record books by becoming the youngest player in NHL history to score on a penalty shot, by deeking out J.S. Aubin on March 21st.
For the year Tim finished tied for 8th in rookie scoring and his shooting percentage was a respectable 12.3%. This percentage is similar to that of 35 goal scorer Mariusz Czerkawski and 40 goal scorer Paul Kariya, however Connolly took less than half as many shots as these snipers, only 114.
The biggest need for Tim is to just mature physically, and the Isles already have him on an off season weight lifting program. He was easily out muscled in the corners and when going to the net, forcing him to be more of a perimeter player. He did show that edge that management likes to see and often dispensed the lumber in retaliation to bigger players who fancied to take a run at him.
With a year of confidence under his belt, some healthy wingers, and 10-15 pounds of muscle added to his frame Connolly should easily improve on his offensive numbers. He has the potential to be a top flight number one centerman, and it will be a pleasure to watch his rise to stardom on Long Island.