Published August 12, 2011
All the players who sweated and laughed through the Craig Charron Memorial Classic on Sunday in Rochester, N.Y., had earned a few swigs of liquid refreshment.
A teammate offered a beverage to Tim Connolly, who, slapping his hand on a stomach that was as flat and hard as the stall in front of which he stood, politely declined.
"It's crunch time now, you know," he said of the real hockey action coming up. "I still have a ways to go. Now it's about skating and conditioning."
Connolly, at a taut 191 pounds and winded not at all, looked to be the very definition of a player in midseason form. But three months past his 30th birthday and heading into his 11th NHL season, he knew better than to stray from the course.
Especially when this course could be taking him through the most challenging season and city of his career.
Connolly is most likely the next first-line center under the microscope in Toronto, courtesy of a two-year, $9.5 million contract he signed in July. His game will be dissected like his body has been examined. Which, considering how often virtually every inch of his 6-foot-1 frame has been broken, torn or smashed, is a lot.
"I'm just looking forward to my time in Toronto, getting ready for that," he said about shaking his injury jinx. "That's what I'm thinking about now. I think the fan support there, it's just a hockey town. I think it will be just an exciting experience for me."
It's also one that was Connolly's Plan B.
By his own admission Connolly's first option was a deal that would have returned him to the Sabres, for whom he played eight seasons. But Buffalo decided that story was played out.
Connolly has the hands, vision and dangle factor unmatched except by the NHL's elite playmakers. When healthy, he created the sizzle expected from someone with that package. Last season he compiled 13 goals and 42 points in 68 games with Buffalo and two seasons ago put up 17 goals and 65 points in 73 contests.
But in the three years prior to that injuries limited him to 98 games, though he posted 88 points in that stretch. The combination of coming attractions created by his talent and disappointment fueled by injuries and his salary of $4.5 million made Connolly something of a dumping ground for fan frustrations.
"You look at Timmy, you look at his skill level, you expect a lot. Sometimes you put too much pressure on yourself," said former Sabres Matthew Barnaby, now an ESPN analyst. "It becomes hard. You try to please everyone. Knowing Timmy, knowing the fans, knowing how it went, I just think there was a lot of pressure put on him. There's pressure everywhere you go. But there comes a certain time in your career, you need a fresh start."
Connolly, the No. 5 pick by the Islanders in the 1999 Entry Draft, made sure to stay above the fray as he crossed sides in the Buffalo/Toronto border battle.
"I think in the long run this will be a good move," he said. "I had nothing but great times in Buffalo."
Biron asked Schenn what moves the Maple Leafs had made. When Schenn brought up Connolly's name, Biron, a teammate of Connolly in Buffalo, gave a shining scouting report.
"Wait until you see his skills. He's always a player you have to be on the lookout for," Biron said he told Schenn. "Timmy is a great personality. He's kind and nice to everybody. I think he'll be really good in that locker room. He'll be really good in that community."
"He's a great passer. Those two are great shooters. We needed help up the middle. To get him will be great," MacArthur said. "The fans are going to appreciate what he brings to the table, and his hockey style. It's a great fit."
For a player whose game is so flashy, Connolly hopes to color Toronto in more subtle hues like penalty killing and fundamentals. When he walks into the locker room this fall, he could be one of the two or three oldest players on the team.
It will be a new role and a new audience. He thinks he's ready.
"I can bring some experience. I was able to get in (the NHL) at a young age," he said. "I have a lot more knowledge of the game now than I did then. Just all the little things it takes. There's a lot of things that go into the game besides playing offensively. It's a team sport. You don't play for individuals."