This weekend, and again this morning, Darcy Regier stated that he had spoken to Tim Connolly’s agent about the possibility of re-signing Connolly. Regier’s obsession with Connolly reached the unhealthy state years ago but the thought of bringing Connolly back is far more puzzling this summer when Regier would appear to have his pick of players thanks to new owner Terry Pegula. Of course Pegula has stated that Connolly is one of his favorite players which could mean Connolly is back no matter what, we’ve already seen in the Pegula era, if Pegula wants something, he gets it.
Still, the prospect of Connolly coming back to the Sabres at any contract amount and in any role cuts across the grain a new era dedicated to winning multiple Stanley Cups. Last season Connolly scored 13 goals, 29 assists and was a -10. Not good numbers for a team’s number one, number two or even number three center (Gaustad had 12 goals, 19 assists and was +7). Connolly went through his usual seasonal streaks and slumps, in the playoffs he failed to score a goal and notched just two assists. The Sabres struggled with the Flyers’ ECHL level goaltending and eventually allowed a 3-2 series lead to evaporate in game six and didn’t show up in an embarrassing game seven. The saving grace for Connolly in that series was his penalty killing, which even his sharpest critics can’t deny, was impressive. Connolly’s strength has always his play making but his shifty skills have eroded over time and the long list of injuries he has endured appears to have caught up to him to some degree.
There’s no real hockey reason to bring Connolly back at any price. As a role player Connolly is greatly lacking, especially compared to other centers that are available this summer. If money is no object and the Sabres truly want to improve the roster, why isn’t Brooks Laich the prime target for the Sabres’ top paid role player? Laich is still in the prime of his career and while his price tag this summer will probably be higher than the $2.066 million he earned last season with the Capitals, the Sabres have the cap room to sign him. If more cap space is needed the Sabres have a glut of fairly high paid wingers, moving one or two of them could easily clear space for a top center, still the team’s most dire need.
The hockey case for the versatile Laich is easy to make. Laich is a leader on and off the ice. He’s a solid two way player known for his shot blocking, penalty killing and decent offensive skills (he can even play the point on the power play). Offensively Laich’s numbers have risen to essentially equal Connolly’s numbers. Last season Laich played in 82 games, scored 16 goals, 32 assists and was a +14. Connolly played in 68 games, scored 13 goals and 29 assists as was a -10. In 36 career playoff games Connolly scored 5 goals and 18 assists, Laich played in 37 games and scored 7 goals and 16 assists.
The Hockey News named Laich one of the NHL’s “elite” role players. Caps’ assistant coach Dean Evason praised Laich’s intelligence. “He won’t make any system mistakes – like nothing. If you ask him ‘Forecheck this way’ or ‘Do this in the neutral zone’ or ‘Here’s what we do on the power play’ or ‘This is how we want to forecheck on the penalty kill’ he does exactly what you ask him to do. And he does it to the fullest of his ability. He trains hard. He’s the perfect hockey player in the sense that he plays both sides of the puck. He’s so good defensively. He’s so aware. And yet he has the speed and the offensive ability to create offense and score goals.”
Laich has earned the respect of coaches and players around the NHL. In terms of hockey decisions, Laich over Connolly is as close to a no-brainer as there gets in the NHL. But can the Sabres finally sever ties with Connolly, a player who has underachieved most of his career? Saying goodbye to a long time employee is a hard thing to do in any business but it would be for the best to say goodbye to Connolly. Connolly represents more of the same, Laich would represent a huge step toward hockey heaven and the Stanley Cup.
McNally, Brian. “How Much is Caps UFA Brooks Laich Worth”. The Washington Examiner. May 27, 2011. <http://washingtonexaminer.com/blogs/loose-pucks/2011/05/how-much-caps-ufa-brooks-laich-worth>.