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Brett Connolly not thinking about what healthy scratches might mean for future with Bruins 03.28.16 at 3:27 pm ET
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Brett Connolly has been a healthy scratch for three of the Bruins' last four games.(Brad Rempel/USA Today Sports)

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.

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Brett Connolly can (and can’t) relate to Jonathan Drouin situation 01.04.16 at 7:05 pm ET
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Brett Connolly

Brett Connolly

The story sounds familiar enough — a top pick of the Lightning has not become a star and figures to eventually be traded — but Brett Connolly can’t put himself in Jonathan Drouin’s shoes completely.

On Sunday, the Lightning sent Drouin, whom they drafted third overall in the 2013 draft, to Syracuse of the AHL. That led to agent Allan Walsh revealing that his client had requested a trade from Tampa in November, news that was still somewhat shocking despite ongoing murmurs that the 20-year-old left wing was not happy with how the team and coach Jon Cooper were using him.

Based on his own experience, Connolly — the Lightning’s first pick (sixth overall) in 2010 — hopes that Drouin doesn’t expect anything in the league to just come to him. He calls Drouin a “good kid” whom he feels can be a star wherever he ends up.

“He’s a good player. He’s got a lot of talent,” Connolly said of his former teammate. “Young guys come in the league and you realize really fast that it’s a tough league. You’ve got to find your game and you’ve got to work at it. It’s not going to be given to you no matter how high a draft pick you are.”

Connolly knows what it’s like to be drafted early by the Lightning and not ascend to stardom as quickly as planned. Like Drouin, Connolly returned to his junior team for another season after being drafted and then turned pro a season later. Both players spent their first pro season playing for Tampa given that the CHL/NHL transfer agreement required players under 20 to either stay with their junior teams or play for their NHL club. Most notably, neither one put up mesmerizing numbers in the NHL in the early going; Connolly had four goals in 68 games in his first NHL season, while Drouin had four goals in 70 games as a rookie.

Yet Connolly’s situation is different from Drouin’s in that he wouldn’t have had a problem staying in Tampa. The team traded him last season because they had a crowded forward group and couldn’t send him down without waivers. At least from the outside, a lack of patience from a still-developing player appears to be a big factor in Drouin’s case. Drouin has two goals in 19 games this season, giving him a total of six goals in 89 career NHL games.

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Ryan Spooner, Joonas Kemppainen, Brett Connolly jell quickly, create chances in Bruins’ win over Maple Leafs 11.21.15 at 11:50 pm ET
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Ryan Spooner

Ryan Spooner

A quick look at Saturday night’€™s box score wouldn’€™t reveal anything notable about the Bruins’€™ third line. Ryan Spooner, Joonas Kemppainen and Brett Connolly didn’€™t score. None of them played more than Spooner’€™s 14:40. They combined for four shots on goal, which is fine but certainly not something that jumps out at you.

But Saturday night was a notable game for that trio. They played really well together, even if it didn’€™t show up in the box score. They had a lot of puck possession and created some of the Bruins’€™ best scoring chances in a game that didn’€™t have many of them.

And to be honest, that was a little surprising. Spooner, Kemppainen and Connolly had spent hardly any time together before Saturday, yet they appeared to have pretty good chemistry. Spooner had played the wing only in spurts before Saturday, yet he looked comfortable there and made things happen from the left side. Kemppainen hadn’€™t exactly been lighting the world on fire on the fourth line, yet he didn’€™t look out of place at all in a top-nine role.

“I think most of the game we played pretty well together,” Spooner said. “We talked a lot before the game and just said, ‘€˜If we don’€™t have much, just try to get the puck in deep.’€™ We did that. And I think off the rush, we had a couple chances too. I thought it went well for sure.”

Spooner, Kemppainen and Connolly all entered Saturday as negative possession players in terms of both regular Corsi and relative Corsi. You wouldn’€™t have been able to guess that watching Saturday night’€™s game against Toronto, though. They were the Bruins’€™ top three players in terms of Corsi-for percentage, with all three finishing the night at 69 percent or better.

They combined for one fewer shot attempt than Patrice Bergeron‘€™s line and three more than David Krejci‘€™s line, despite getting significantly less ice time. They also created a couple good chances that didn’€™t even count as shot attempts — a Kemppainen centering pass just missed a charging Spooner early in the first period, and a Spooner feed for a charging Connolly did the same midway through the third.

On the latter chance, Spooner’€™s speed down the wing was clearly a factor, something Claude Julien was happy to point out after the game.

“I think Spoons has really done a good job on the left wing there, adapting to it and using his speed,” Julien said. “A lot more involved in the last two games, and that’€™s what we need out of Ryan. And that’€™s a sign of a young player really who’€™s getting it. He wants to be better, so kudos to him.”

Spooner said after the game that he’€™s still not completely comfortable on the wing — he said he’€™s probably played wing fewer than 20 times in his life — but he also noted that having fewer defensive responsibilities helped, as he admitted that his defense as a center hasn’€™t always been great. Kemppainen helps in that respect, as he is pretty responsible defensively. And Kemppainen clearly benefited from playing with faster, more skilled players.

Whether Spooner, Kemppainen and Connolly stay together remains to be seen. Frank Vatrano is expected back soon, perhaps as early as Monday, so expect more line-juggling to make room for him. But even if they don’€™t stay together for now, it’€™s nice for Julien to know that he has this as a bottom-six option that can be effective in the future.

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Brett Connolly making impact whether or not he’s scoring since return 10.28.15 at 1:06 pm ET
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Brett Connolly

Brett Connolly

That Brett Connolly has scored goals in all three games since being a healthy scratch is a great sign. Here’€™s another one: He’€™s drawing penalties instead of taking them.

Connolly, whose most memorable plays from his five games with the B’€™s last season were the five minor penalties he took in two games, has drawn two penalties in the last three games. He also hasn’€™t taken a single penalty over his seven games this season. The Bruins want Connolly to perform and stay disciplined. So far, he’€™s done both.

“I think it kind of comes with the territory of playing hard and finishing your checks,” Connolly said Wednesday. “When you’€™re finishing your checks and you’€™re being hard to play against, it’€™s usually the time when guys will take penalties on you and do things that they maybe they wouldn’€™t do if you’€™re not playing hard against them. I think just playing hard, that’€™s when guys will take penalties on you.”

A good example of that came Tuesday night, when Connolly finished a hit on Oliver Ekman-Larsson and got the Coyotes defenseman to take an undisciplined interference penalty in retaliation. The Bruins didn’€™t score on the ensuing power play, but they did two games earlier when Connolly drew a high-sticking double-minor. Forty-six seconds after Claude Giroux went to the box for the infraction, Patrice Bergeron scored to tie a game the Bruins would eventually lose.

Playing with Bergeron and Brad Marchand has undoubtedly led to his increased production, as the first-line duo has set up each of his three goals since he returned to the lineup. That he’€™s staying disciplined could prolong his stay in the top six.

“It’€™s better to be drawing them than taking them,” Connolly said. “I’€™ve been on a little bit of a streak here of not taking penalties. I knew that it was going to fade away and go away. I haven’€™t really been the guy to take a lot of penalties in the past. It’€™s been good. I think that I’€™ve just got to continue playing hard and being hard to play against. Hopefully they’€™ll keep taking penalties.”

The “that” to which Connolly refers is the ugly two-game stretch late last season. Full of energy after missing about a month with a broken finger suffered in his second practice, Connolly’€™s penalties put the B’€™s in a bad spot as they tried to secure a playoff spot. The B’€™s lost both of those games, with Connolly’€™s high-sticking penalty against the Panthers leading to a power play goal.

“Maybe I came in, you’€™re so excited to play and you’€™re maybe trying to do a little bit too much,” Connolly said. “It was frustrating for sure, when you’€™re always in the box and then the coach isn’€™t happy with you. It was something I had to adjust to, and I thought I’€™ve been better at it as of late.”

Said Claude Julien: “He comes in, he wants to make an impression going hard. Sometimes you try so hard, you’€™re not always doing the right things. I think now he’€™s more — I keep using the word — he’€™s more comfortable in what we’€™re doing here. He’€™s just going out there and playing his game. I think whenever he skates the way he skates, and with his big body and his strength, he has to have guys drag him down or hold him. That’€™s the reason I think he’€™s drawing penalties.”

It was just a week ago that things weren’t looking great for the scratched Connolly. His return has seen plenty of reasons as to why he shouldn’t expect to be a healthy scratch again soon.

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Why Claude Julien and the Bruins still consider new OT a work in progress 09.25.15 at 12:22 pm ET
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You can safely assume when on-ice officials are explaining what happens to a head coach in the middle of a play, there is still some uncertainty about the rules.

Such is the case with the reformatted overtime in the NHL. On Thursday night, Bruins defenseman Matt Irwin took a hooking penalty 1:25 into the extra period. Instead of the Bruins going down a man, the Rangers went up a man.

The reason?

The NHL is introducing the 3-on-3 overtime this season. To avoid a 3-on-2 situation that would be more like a pre-game warmup rush, the NHL decided to go with a modified power play that would be identical to overtimes of the past. But while that was difficult enough to get used to, what happened next was even a little more peculiar.

The Rangers, getting mixed up with the extra man line changes of the new overtime, took a too many men on the ice when they wound up with the puck and six skaters on the ice. Veteran referee Eric Furlatt went over to Claude Julien to explain that the Bruins would not gain an extra man and go 4-on-4 but rather the Rangers would lose their additional man on the ice.

Then the Bruins would have their own 4-on-3 once Irwin’s penalty expired. Neither team scored and the Bruins would win the preseason game, 4-3, in seven rounds of a shootout. Still, the experience was much more helpful than Tuesday night’s encounter with the Capitals, a game that featured 3-on-3 for all of 12 seconds before David Pastrnak scored.

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Chris Kelly on looming line choices: ‘We’ve got a great problem to have’ 04.05.15 at 10:27 am ET
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Chris Kelly is hardly worried about the looming decisions that will have to be made to determine who will play and who won’t come playoff time.

Kelly moved from his left wing spot and centered a line Saturday that had Max Talbot on left wing and newcomer Brett Connolly on the right. This left out Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille. The way Kelly sees it, there are five players trying to make Claude Julien‘s job as difficult as possible with competition in the last week.

“Competition, that’€™s why we all play. Competition is good, and it makes everyone better, I think. We’€™ve got a great problem to have, good players that can play in the lineup, and I think every guy is trying to make it difficult on him to make those tough decisions,” Kelly said. “Ultimately, you want to go out there and play your best hockey and help the team.”

Connolly played in just his second game with the Bruins since returning from a broken finger in his second practice with the Bruins and was relieved to finally contribute. Kelly said he was happy from what he saw from his line during a 2-1 shootout win over the Maple Leafs Saturday.

“We had some pretty good chances,” Kelly said. “I think all three of us, our feet were moving, and we weren’€™t in our end too often, so it was good. A bounce here, a bounce there, maybe we would’€™ve been able to get one.”

Julien insisted after the game that what he’s trying to do is more about keeping everyone fresh than holding an audition for the fourth line in the final week. Read the rest of this entry »

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Brett Connolly shows he can play in different spots, is ‘excited’ to finally contribute at 12:15 am ET
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Brett Connolly

Brett Connolly

Forget whether or not Brett Connolly has one of the best shots in the NHL. The most important thing is that the Bruins are a better team now that he’€™s in the lineup.

How much better remains to be seen. He’€™s not a superstar, but he’€™s an upgrade over Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille, the Bruins’€™ two healthy scratches Saturday. He’€™s better at creating chances, he shoots more and he’€™s a better possession player.

Where Connolly settles into the lineup also remains to be seen. He has played two games so far since returning from a finger injury that delayed his Bruins debut, and he has played with pretty much everyone. He played on the fourth line with Max Talbot and Chris Kelly for most of Saturday’€™s 2-1 shootout win over Toronto, but he also got moved up a couple times to take some shifts with other lines.

“Obviously coach is trying to feel some things out. It was good,”€ Connolly said. “€œI thought that me, Max and Kells had a pretty good start to the third, kind of got better as the game went on, too. It was good. … I’€™ve played with pretty much everybody on the team so far, just trying to feel it out.”

The fourth line didn’€™t find the score sheet Saturday, but Connolly, Talbot and Kelly did combine for seven shots on goal and they all finished with a Corsi better than 70 percent (Connolly was on the ice for 12 five-on-five shot attempts for and five against).

“We had some pretty good chances,”€ Kelly said. “I think all three of us, our feet were moving and we weren’€™t in our end too often, so it was good. A bounce here, a bounce there, maybe we would’€™ve been able to get one.”

The thinking when the Bruins acquired Connolly on March 2 was that he could be a top-six forward, something the Bruins desperately needed at the time. He still might end up there, but David Krejci returning from injury and Ryan Spooner playing much better means there’€™s a little more competition for those spots.

Naturally, that means there’€™s also more competition for fourth-line spots now. Connolly doesn’€™t fit the mold of the old-school, grinding, checking fourth-liner, but the old school is just that — old. Fourth lines need to have some skill now, and the Bruins finally have the pieces they need to make that transition, one they seemed ready to make in the offseason when they let Shawn Thornton walk.

Saturday night offered a glimpse of what a more skilled fourth line can do, even if you factor in that it came against a terrible Maple Leafs team. For what it’€™s worth, Claude Julien said after the game that there could still be some rotation on the fourth line (and every other line, for that matter).

“I feel we’€™ve got a lot of players that can go in and out right now,”€ Julien said. “But at the same time I’€™m trying to create a little bit of competition here. I don’€™t want anybody comfortable, knowing that they’€™re automatics game in and game out.”

Regardless, it’€™s hard to imagine Connolly’€™s spot not being safe. He’€™s probably the top option to move into a top-nine role if someone struggles (Reilly Smith?), but he also makes the fourth line better if he stays there. For his part, Connolly says he’€™ll be happy wherever as long as he’€™s helping the team.

“Very excited to finally be out there and get a couple wins here in my first two games and to be able to contribute a little bit and help the team win,”€ Connolly said. “Again, the team’€™s playing well so far lately. It’€™s been a lot of fun to step in and be a part of it.”

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