Eric Staal, Anze Kopitar, Gustav Nyquist, Brett Connolly – what do these players all have in common? They all scored 22 goals in the 2018-19 season. But Connolly does not seem to fit this group. He has quietly developed into a steady player who provides secondary, even-strength scoring. What that should mean for him is a significant pay raise for the 2019-20 season.
Connolly: From First-round Bust to 20-Goal Scorer
In 2010, Connolly was drafted with the sixth-overall pick in the NHL Draft. In four seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he never consistently showed the potential expected when drafted. In 134 games, he scored just 18 goals and had 32 points. The Lightning would ship him to the Boston Bruins for two second-round picks. His numbers with the Bruins would not be any better.
In 2016, the Capitals signed Connolly to a one-year, $850,000 contract, hardly the salary you would expect for a former first-round pick. He would contribute with a career-high 15 goals and provide the additional scoring punch needed on the lower lines. That season would earn him a new two-year contract at $1.5 million a season. He would repeat his performance with 15 goals in 2017-18 and added six goals during the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run. Then, in 2018-19, Connolly would have his best season when he scored 22 goals, tied for fourth on the team, and 46 points, good for seventh on the team.
Connolly’s performance should bring him a good contract, but probably not from the Capitals. They need to focus on re-signing Jakub Vrana, and there will not be much money left for Connolly, who has earned a multi-year deal. The Caps also must plan for the 2020-21 free agents Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby. Besides, the Caps probably have cheaper options that they are hoping to use as a third line winger. Andre Burakovsky could be that option and Travis Boyd is also an option. But the question remains, how much of a raise could Connolly get?
Is He Worth $4 Million a Season?
There are several players that can be used to determine what Connolly could get on the open market. Anaheim Ducks winger, Jakob Silfverberg, is 28 years old, a year older than Connolly, and had similar numbers. He had 24 goals and 43 points this season, the best of his career. Silfverberg earned $5.25 million on a five-year contract.
Yanni Gourde of Tampa Bay is 27 years old and scored 22 goals and had 46 points this past season. Gourde is currently making $5.166 million on a six-year deal. Gourde has put up better numbers in the past. Connolly could have an argument for that type of money, but with a deeper free agent pool this summer, he will fall well shy of those numbers.
The better comparison is the 2018 free agent signing of Matt Calvert with the Colorado Avalanche. He ended the 2017-18 season with nine goals and 24 points. The previous season he had 10 goals and 15 points, which were less than his career-high 13 goals and 24 points. Colorado signed Calvert to a three-year deal at $2.85 million a year.
Connolly’s numbers over the last three seasons are better than Calvert’s, which should set the minimum on what to expect for Connolly. At 27 years old, he should be able to get at least a three-year deal at a minimum of $3 million a season. Based on the supply of players as well as the recent signings of Silfverberg, Gourde, and especially Calvert, it could safe to predict that Connolly will get a four-year deal with an average yearly salary of $3.75 million.
Possible Landing Spots
While a pay raise is certain for Connolly, his destination is a bit harder to predict. He needs a team that has the cap space and need for a second or third line right wing. His play has probably also earned him a try-out for top-six minutes. One team that could be a fit is the Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes have shown improvement and should be pushing for a playoff spot in 2019-20. He could bring some leadership and could play on the second line and contribute to the power play. It is hard to put a price tag on a player who has been through a Stanley Cup run.
The New Jersey Devils are a young team that has shown signs of taking their game to the next level. Connolly would fit into the team’s plans and the Devils have a lot of cap space to possibly overpay for him. They also have multiple spots to fill and he could provide leadership for the young roster.
Meanwhile, Connolly could return to where he was born and played junior hockey: British Columbia. The Vancouver Canucks did not get the results expected from Loui Eriksson, and Connolly could provide depth to a lineup full of good, young players. Going home may be tempting and he would reunite with former teammate Jay Beagle.
The reunion we may see is Connolly back with the coach where he turned it around – Barry Trotz and the New York Islanders. Jordan Eberle is a free agent who made over three times the salary of Connolly and put up worse numbers. Connolly would be a good fit and he knows Trotz’s system. Also, Trotz understands exactly the type of player he will get in Connolly. The Islanders may be looking for more of an upgrade but there is something to say for familiarity.
This year’s free agent market is deeper than it has been in years, and it will be hard to find Connolly high on many “top 20” lists. The former first-round pick has taken longer to blossom, but should be rewarded for his improvement and time will tell if an increased role, more minutes, and more time on the power play could make Connolly a 30-goal scorer and a guy who should have been on many teams’ wish lists.