Photo: Minas Panagiotakis
When the Caps signed Tom Wilson to a deal for $2 million per season, it further lowered the hope that they’d have the cap space to sign a guy like PA Parenteau or Kris Versteeg when free agency opened on Friday. Instead, it became more apparent that if the Caps were going to do anything in free agency, they were going to sign a cheaper option for the bottom six, perhaps a veteran like Brad Boyes or Tomas Fleischmann. There were also a couple of younger players like Brandon Pirri and Brett Connolly who fit this mold of a cheaper, more under the radar option for the bottom-six.
The Caps landed Connolly.
Connolly is a solid addition to the Caps forward group. Connolly is a guy who brings a skill-based game and can slot in on the bottom-six. He’s a former first round pick, still just 24 years old, so he may still have some untapped offensive upside. He’s a viable option to play wing on the third line, but he’s also not such an established player that he’ll be a roadblock in the spot. So, he won’t potentially block a player like Jakub Vrana if Vrana turns heads at camp and forces his way into the opening night lineup.
Connolly posted 25 points last season, a new high for him in his four-year career. Connolly’s shooting percentage in 2015-16 was 9.5 percent, right in line with his career mark, so it’s not as if the nine goals were due to a good run of puck luck. His on-ice shooting percentage was 8 percent, so it’s also not as if the assists were build on an unsustainable run of good puck luck.
Connolly has been a positive relative possession player in each of the last two seasons and in his career has plus-1.1 percent shot-attempt percentage. He’s not a black hole of possession like some Caps bottom-six forwards of recent seasons. One bit of context that should be added here is that he’s spent nearly one-third of his NHL career skating with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. So, it remains to be seen how good his possession numbers will be away from those two, especially considering he was a negative relative possession player in Tampa for two seasons before joining the Bruins.
Here’s a look at how Connolly’s teammates fared last season in puck possession both with and without him. This chart is via the indispensable Micah McCurdy (also visit his amazing site). The axis are shot attempts for and against. The further right on the x-axis, the better. The further up on the y-axis, the better. The colors explain the context. The black squares are how a player did with Connolly, the red how they did without him, and the blue how Connolly did without that player.
The fact that there’s a cluster if red squares below the black squares shows that a lot of Connolly’s teammates did better skating with him than without him. While none of the black boxes are in positions that convey dominant puck possession, a quick and dirty takeaway from this is that Connolly seems to help many of his teammates with puck possession and, at worst, doesn’t drag his teammates down.
His individual shot attempts per 6o, something the Caps could use a boost in, aren’t lighting the world on fire. But, it should be noted that his career mark is 11.9 shot attempts per 60, above his mark of 10.6 per 60 last season.
Connolly will likely be battling for a third line wing spot along with Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana, and maybe Stan Galiev. He’s essentially replacing Jason Chimera in the bottom-six mix, so let’s take a look at how those two compare to each other.
via Own the Puck
Okay, don’t freak out about the offensive production thing. Yes, Chimera’s rate production last season was second line caliber while Connolly’s was clearly third line. But, if you look at the following season probabilities, you can see that Chimera’s offensive production looks unsustainable moving forward. On the other side, Connolly has a much better shot at producing at a top-9 clip next season. There’s a 70 percent chance Connolly will produce at a top-9 level, while for Chimera the probability of third line production or better is 49 percent.
Possession-wise, Connolly is clearly a better player than Chimera. In fact, while Chimera has just a 5 percent chance of being a top-6 caliber player possession wise, Connolly has just a 17 percent chance of being fourth line or worse. So, they are very different players in terms of puck possession and the Caps now have the much better player in that regard.
The Caps wanted to add depth and skill to their bottom-six but didn’t have a lot of cap space to work with. That can be tough to do in the free agent market. But Brian MacLellan and his gang did an excellent job of targeting an undervalued player to add to the mix who could also grow into being a more productive player than he’s show so far in his career. This move will likely go unnoticed given some of the big names that signed on July 1 and there’s no guarantee that Connolly makes an impact this season. But, given the cap restraints the Caps are facing, they did a nice job adding a potential contributor to the third line.