Brett Connolly has been a healthy scratch for three of the Bruins’ last four games.(Brad Rempel/USA Today Sports)
WILMINGTON — If Brett Connolly shot with the accuracy he used to describe his current status, he’d be a 30-goal-scorer.
“It’s obviously not enjoyable,” Connolly said Monday.
A gifted young player who entered the season with high expectations, Connolly’s lack of production with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand got him bumped to the bottom six early in the month. Recently, he’s been out of the lineup altogether, sitting three of the last four games as a healthy scratch.
In the one game he did play in that span, Connolly lost his cool prior to a faceoff and broke Aaron Ekblad’s stick at the drop of the puck for an obvious slashing call. He ended up playing just 4:45 that night, the last game action he has seen.
After being acquired for two second-round picks at the 2015 trade deadline, this is not how the 23-year-old Connolly (nine goals, 16 assist in 70 games) expected this season to go. Given that he’s on a one-year deal and will be a restricted free agent at season’s end, there’s reason to wonder whether he could be dealt this offseason.
“You’ve just got to keep plugging away,” Connolly said. “It’s the nature of the business. Hopefully things turn around.”
Whether Connolly should be out of the lineup is debatable. He probably offers more right now than Jimmy Hayes, but the Bruins made a three-year commitment to Hayes last offseason and are on the books for Hayes’ $2.3 million cap hit for the next two seasons. Hayes was also the Cam Neely/Don Sweeney leadership group’s acquisition; Connolly was acquired while Peter Chiarelli was still on the job.
Those things work against Connolly, but he has not helped himself. Connolly served as Bergeron and Marchand’s right wing for much of the season, but scored just six even-strength goals prior to Boston’s acquisition of Lee Stempniak.
Connolly’s confidence was obviously shot during lengthy slumps (19 games without a goal from Dec. 2 to Jan. 13, one goal over 18 games from Jan. 26 to March 5) and one can only imagine where it is right now.
The former sixth overall pick said that when he’s been in the lineup recently, he’s found the adjustment to low minutes difficult. He’s liked how he’s fared when teamed with Landon Ferraro and Noel Acciari, but he’s received 10 minutes of ice time in only two of 10 games this month, a span that’s seen him play under six minutes in four games. Prior to the Stempniak acquisition, Connolly played at least 10 minutes in 58 of 60 games; he played 9:46 and 9:25 in the other two.
“I think it’s a little harder when you’re not playing as many minutes to get into the game,” Connolly said. “It’s a different game. You’ve just got to keep working on things in practice and keep believing in your abilities. I think things can change quickly; you’ve just got to be ready for your next opportunity. Hopefully it comes sooner rather than later.”
With Ryan Spooner out, Connolly can expect to return to the Bruins’ lineup Tuesday night in New Jersey, where he figures to skate with Ferraro and Acciari. Connolly, whose 1.23 shots on goal per game is the lowest among Bruins wingers with at least 30 games played, could benefit to throw some pucks on net once he gets back in the lineup.
“You always want to get more shots,” he said. “I think for me, that if I can get some more pucks on net, maybe I can get some more bounces and hopefully a couple of them go in.”
Said Claude Julien: “We want him to be a player that can give us some energy and make some plays, which he’s capable of doing. Obviously that was an ill-advised penalty that he took [against] the Panthers at a bad time. He’s got to make sure that he controls those kind of things better, but he needs to overall just be a better player and step up his game.”
Connolly still has plenty of hockey ahead of him, but whether that’s in Boston remains unclear. Asked whether being scratched for key games changed his longterm desire to stay with the Bruins, Connolly reiterated his preference to have a lengthy career in Boston.
“I’m not thinking about [leaving]. It’s a great organization,” Connolly said. “I’ve enjoyed my time here and it’s a team that believes in winning. That hasn’t even crossed my mind about what’s next. It’s about the present.”