He's been a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs for less than two weeks, and has yet to take the ice, but already there's controversy stirring around Tim Connolly.
Those in the game who know him well, however, say the knocks against the Leafs' latest hope at centre are undeserved.
The latest criticism of Connolly, the NHL club's only major free-agent signing this year, was published in the Toronto Sun this week, suggesting his reputation amongst "hockey people" consists of being "difficult," a "loner," a "spoiled brat" and "not a team player."
The article drew the ire of several of Connolly's former teammates with the Buffalo Sabres, including star netminder Ryan Miller, who painted a picture of a player who has been unfairly criticized throughout his career while battling through a series of devastating injuries.
"It's unfortunate the media hasn't even let him get on the ice before starting with this crap," Miller said Thursday.
"I think some people in the media [in Buffalo]felt like he owed them explanations beyond what he cared to share, and it just became a little bit of a vendetta. From my perspective, the only thing Tim doesn't care about is what the talking heads think about him. He cares about hockey fans, he cares about winning and he cares about his teammates.
"In my book, that's all that matters."
Being a target for criticism from media and fans is hardly new for Connolly. Picked fifth overall in the 1999 draft by the New York Islanders, he has had a hard time living up to the lofty expectations.
After making the Islanders as an 18-year-old, he lasted only two years before being dealt to Buffalo for popular Sabres captain Mike Peca, who was in the midst of a contract holdout.
Quiet and reserved, Connolly initially struggled in Buffalo, putting up only 25 points in his second season there and running into concussion issues that led to him missing the entire 2003-04 season.
He hasn't played a full season since, missing 190 games over the six post-lockout seasons - including all but two games in 2006-07 with back and neck issues that may have been related to post-concussion syndrome.
When he's been healthy, Connolly has been productive, with 250 points in 302 games since the lockout - the equivalent of a 68-point pace over a full season - which is why the Maple Leafs gave him a two-year, $9.5-million (U.S.) deal to be their top-line centre.
Miller said while Connolly's critics derided him for being soft and injury prone, he saw a young player battle through injuries to become much more well-rounded, playing a key role on both the power play and penalty kill in recent years.
"Tim committed to recreating himself over the last few years to bring value to our team," Miller said. "He hasn't been perfect and no one is … but he has had major obstacles to contend with and has come out as a solid NHL player every time he has been knocked down. He never quit."
Connolly's agent, J.P. Barry, added the environment in Buffalo had gotten so poor it was time for him to leave the city after 10 years of being a lightning rod for critics.
"It just didn't stop over the years," Barry said of criticism Connolly faced from members of the Buffalo media, including one who branded him "Tiny Tim" early on - a nickname that caught on with fans.
"Unfortunately, there were a couple journalists in particular that took a rough approach to him and continued to do that. I can only assume they're the source of these stories," the agent said. "He's played in the league since he was 18 years old and there's a lot of guys in this league that like him a lot.
"He's a quiet, respectful kid. … We know how other players feel about him, and it's just completely the opposite of what's being said in this article."
Miller said he believes Connolly, 30, will excel with the Maple Leafs, a division rival the Sabres will face six times next season.
"He'll do well with a fresh start," the goalie said. "He's misunderstood by the media and the fans."
Boyce re-signs with Leafs
The Maple Leafs brought back unrestricted free agent centre Darryl Boyce on Thursday, signing him to a one-year, two-way deal that will pay him $700,000 at the NHL level.
Signed out of the University of New Brunswick as a free agent in 2008, Boyce began last season with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL but caught on with the parent club by midseason.
He finished the year with 13 points (five goals) in 46 NHL games.Report Typo/Error