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  (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

 

(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

The curious case of Tim Connolly and the Leafs Add to ...

One of big issues for a player dealing with the Toronto media is one of narrative.

Because it’s not so much that the mass of media covering the Toronto Maple Leafs are overly critical and pick players apart every day.

You see that in other cities but not really here.

Instead what you get is a narrative assigned to players that they have a hard time shaking and have to answer to again and again and again.

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And again.

Sometimes, oftentimes, those narratives are accurate.

Mike Komisarek is struggling. (So he gets asked about his struggles.) James Reimer is unproven. (So he gets asked about establishing himself.)

Other times, they’re less true, as when Phil Kessel goes three games without a goal and is in a “slump,” or Nazem Kadri is labelled a bust because he isn’t a 60-point NHL player at age 22.

One player having a tough time with narrative this year is Tim Connolly.

Statistically speaking, Connolly obviously didn’t excel last season. After signing a two-year, $9-million deal, his 36 points were his lowest in a full season since 2002-03 and his third lowest in a 10-year career.

Twenty-two of those points came in his first 28 games as a Leafs, too, meaning he had just 14 points in his final 42 games.

So when coach Randy Carlyle said they want a “rebound” season from him, no one in the scrum raised an eyebrow in camp this week.

“He didn’t have the year that he expected or we expected last year,” Carlyle said. “We’re looking for a rebound year from Tim Connolly.”

Here’s the thing though: There’s obviously a little tension between Connolly and the Leafs right now. The player clearly wants to play a bigger offensive role than he did last season, and he and Carlyle had a heart-to-heart meeting to that effect.

Connolly can be prickly to deal with and wasn’t particularly interested in talking about last season, but when pressed, you could tell he felt he did more of value than the narrative – that he’s been an unmitigated bust in Toronto – would suggest.

Here was his answer when asked (maybe for the second or third time) about needing to “rebound” this season.

“Even strength, I think I had my second highest career points last year,” Connolly said. “I’d like to improve my play on the power play and maybe play a bigger role. Penalty killing, I think, my individual percentage was 89 per cent I read somewhere. I was able to lead the forwards in blocked shots.”

So, given all those positives, was he happy with how his season went last year, then?

“No, why, is that the impression?” Connolly said. “I already said, we didn’t achieve our goals. Moving forward, just taking it one day at a time, and go from there. Build on that.”

Which is the diplomatic answer for: “Give me that bigger role and I’ll be able to do more.”

Connolly has been a pretty productive NHL player when healthy. He had 55 points in 63 games in 2005-06 as a 24-year-old in Buffalo, followed up by 40 points in 48 games, 47 in 48 games and 65 in 73 games.

In the first five seasons after the last lockout, Connolly actually had 0.89 points per game for the Sabres, which puts him 38th and in impressive company out of players that played at least 40 games a season over that stretch.

He was often hurt, yes, but an important asset – especially on the power play, where he produced 42 per cent of his points while in Buffalo – for those teams.

Which brings us to how he fits in with the Leafs.

Or maybe doesn’t.

“We’ve had conversations with him through the course of the summer, and he’s indicated to us that he’d like us to enlighten him in a few of the areas [for improvement] so we enlightened him,” Carlyle said of Connolly. “We told him what our expectations are. We try to be as transparent as possible as we can with our players.

“There’s some conversations that you have with your coaches that remain private. Because I think it that is almost like your doctor and patient confidentiality. There’s some things that happen in the room that you don’t bring outside of the room. Those personal conversations with players are things that are private. If he wanted to tell you, it would be up to him to disclose that to you. I don’t think it’s appropriate.”

Two years ago, Connolly was tied for 19th in the league with 27 power play points, and he played an impressive 3:43 minutes on the man advantage a game, mainly on the point.

Last season in Toronto, however, he received half that ice time and had a career low five points on the power play, largely because Ron Wilson shifted Tyler Bozak onto the top line with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul and Connolly began getting checking line minutes.

Why Connolly is likely upset with his narrative is that he can actually be a pretty competent defensive player when he wants to. Lindy Ruff used him a lot on the penalty kill, and his skating and hockey sense is strong enough that he can surprise in that role, something Carlyle took advantage of when he joined the Leafs.

“We felt that he was a top six forward,” Carlyle said. “But he didn’t play in that role last year when I first came here and he performed very well for me. So I would say that we can place Tim Connolly anywhere in the lineup. Historically he’s been an offensive player and been able to provide points. I don’t see us putting him on the fourth line. Anything above that, it’s possible.”

But if you look at this year’s training camp roster, it seems likely Connolly’s not going to fit into the top six forwards group yet again. Carlyle appears to be leaning toward playing Bozak with Kessel and Lupul and keeping Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski as the second trio.

Then there’s newcomer James Van Riemsdyk, who’s obviously a high profile addition, to consider.

Then there are a pile of centres beyond that, including Matt Lombardi, Jay McClement, Nazem Kadri, David Steckel etc.

That would likely mean, at best, Connolly starts on some sort of a hybrid checking/scoring third line, getting less ice time at even strength than Bozak and Grabovski and who knows how much opportunity on the power play.

Will he be happy there? It’s hard to say. But he’s clearly already asked for a bigger role, and Carlyle now has to mull over if that’s even possible and if it’s the right way to go.

As it stands now, this Leafs team simply has too many bodies up front, with more quantity than quality. Playing time could be an issue for a handful of players who want to contribute more if no one is dealt.

Moving someone out might be the best choice, even if it’s for little in return. And if they can sell another team on Connolly’s untapped offensive ability, he might be the one to go.

Otherwise, where does he fit?

Because after Carlyle’s assessment of him in camp on Wednesday, the second impression hasn’t been all good.

“I thought he had a rough day today,” he said.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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