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Too Many Men: Brett Connolly and Cracking the Caps Lineup

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Connolly has struggled to carve out a regular role for himself with the Caps... but why?

Washington Capitals v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In an otherwise quiet offseason for the Washington Capitals, one of their “big” moves this past summer was to sign free agent Brett Connolly to a one-year deal worth a cap-friendly $850,000.

Connolly, a former top-five pick of the Lightning, had played the last two seasons with the Bruins but had not received a qualifying offer and was set free. With a short-term, low-cost contract and plenty to prove, the addition of Connolly to the Caps’ roster was viewed at the time as a low-risk, potentially high-reward move for a team looking to shore up their forward depth.

Since then, Connolly has played very well for the Caps, putting up glowing possession numbers and chipping in with some timely (albeit somewhat rare) offense... and yet he’s only been given a sweater in 17 of the first 31 games of the year.

Some of that comes down to simple math: with 14 or 15 healthy bodies and just 12 forward spots available, someone is going to have to sit. What was already something of a tough roster to crack coming into training camp has become even more so as the season has progressed, particularly with the emergence of rookies like Zach Sanford and Jakub Vrana.

But is Connolly perhaps sitting a bit more than he should be?

The numbers suggest that yes, perhaps he is. In his 17 games, Connolly has put up four points (three goals, one assist), which isn’t exactly an offensive explosion but has him clicking at a rate of 1.14 points/60, not far off his career pace of 1.2.

He’s operating at a stellar 57.8% CF at five on five, third-highest on the team and the best of his career, although some of that is obviously influenced by the teams he’s played for; what’s more impressive is his career-high RelCF% of 5.9, particularly on a pretty decent possession team like the Caps.

While the total CF numbers look good, he has at times struggled when it comes to producing on his own, both in terms of actual offense and the shots and chances that can lead to actual offense. Via Corsica, he ranks eighth out of 15 Caps forwards in iSCF/60 at even strength with 2.7, and his 11.1 iCF/60 is in the bottom third.

He is sixth in iSF/60 with 6.9, however, which ranks above more offensive-minded players like T.J. Oshie (6.5/60) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (5.9/60). And when he gets shots on net, he’s doing so from in tight (something the team always needs more of) - his average shot distance is 25.4 feet, which just barely misses the top spot on the team (currently held by Jay Beagle at 25.36 feet).

Here’s how Connolly compares to someone like Winnik, who is usually the odd man out when Connolly draws into the lineup:

via Own the Puck

Of course, Connolly doesn’t operate in a vacuum - so what about with his linemates? Has he found chemistry with any of them or has it been a tough fit?

Check it out:

via Corsica.Hockey

And his three most frequent line combinations:

via Corsica.Hockey

Obviously it’s a small sample size (both in terms of his limited ice time overall and how much time he’s spent with each of the forwards in his 17 games) but it’s pretty clear that Connolly elevates his game when skating alongside more skilled players.

He’s not the driver of possession on these lines, but he doesn’t need to be - especially when skating alongside someone like Lars Eller. It’s worth noting that when Eller and Connolly are on the same line at five on five, their CF% is 64.2, Eller’s highest mark with any teammate and Connolly’s second-highest among Caps forwards (the numbers are better with Justin Williams, but in a much smaller sample).

On the flip side, a fourth-line role doesn’t seem to fit Connolly’s skills; he’s definitely not a good fit with someone like Zach Sanford. In fact, in 118 minutes of five-on-five hockey away from Sanford, Connolly’s CF% is a robust 64.1%, and 61.8% in 114 minutes away from Jay Beagle.

All in all, the overall numbers for Connolly - at an individual level and as a piece of the larger puzzle - seem to say that he should be in more often than he’s out. That he hasn’t gotten a jersey on a more regular basis probably comes down to what has been a perfect storm of factors, from the team wanting to see what they had in someone like Sanford, to Vrana’s emergence and a third line that’s suddenly clicking, to the fact that other options to come out like Winnik and Wilson offer penalty-killing expertise while Connolly does not.

Still, based on what he’s done so far it would seem like he’s earned a bit more ice time than he’s getting at the moment. Again, small sample size caveats abound, and some of what he’s doing is probably unsustainable... but early returns are positive, and it’s worth seeing if he can prove that they’re not just a fluke.