As Tim Connolly returns, reality check awaits fans

3MI GUEST POST

With today being the Maple Leafs’ first regular season drive of the year down Queen Elizabeth Way, an airing of grievances is in store at the First Niagara Center.

Tonight, Sabres fans are prepared to let Tim Connolly understand just how thankful they were for his time in Buffalo. Perhaps “understand” and “thankful” are the wrong words.

Why do Sabres fans hate Connolly so much? His injuries? His favorable contract? The inability to live up to his long-discussed hype?

The truth is, Buffalonians never truly took a liking to him at any point. His follies were trounced upon by fans who could not wait to deem him a failure. His successes were met with apathy; each dangle, each creative pass merely fulfilling expectations. Simply put, Connolly’s style and persona put him on a tight leash from day one in Buffalo. His unemotional mannerisms and favorable final contract made for an uphill climb to a Western New Yorker’s heart.

Connolly has, when healthy, performed admirably so far in Toronto. On pace for 58 points in 70 games and coming off a two-goal performance (including an overtime winner), the narrative is built for a dramatic return to Buffalo. He’s no less creative in the offensive zone than before and still takes pride in playing a strong defensive game. Leafs fans have been pleased, seeing Connolly as a logical acquisition to a team that needed a playmaking center.

With his name serving as a punchline in Buffalo for much of his time there, a look at his numbers fail to explain the poor treatment he received.

In 464 games with the Sabres he accumulated 320 points. Subtract his ‘02-’03 season (a year very few Sabres performed well), and Connolly racked up at least half a point a game. At his best, he was over a half-point-a-game player, statistically peaking between the ‘05-’06 and ‘09-’10 campaigns. Fans took his physical ailments as a reason to contest his value to the team instead of eagerly awaiting his return, a treatment few oft-injured Sabres ever faced.

The breaking point with the fans seemed to be the front office renewing his contract at $4.5 million a year at the 2009 trade deadline instead of dealing him for prospects and/or picks.

A blue-collar fan base, unsympathetic towards Connolly’s inability to physically perform for work became outraged at the sight of him receiving a sizable raise. His new salary was market rate for a player of his caliber; but a blue collar market couldn’t get comfortable with a fragile, crafty centerman receiving more money when he wasn’t anchoring the team (a la Briere or Drury).

And so the bitterness continued to build.

Connolly performed well that next season, however, accumulating 65 points in 73 games, quieting but not satisfying the fans. His playoff performance was poor, and he readily admitted it. He failed to score a goal against a Bruins team that exposed the Sabres’ many weaknesses. Never mind the poor performances of Derek Roy or Jason Pominville in that same series. Never mind the iconic Marc Recchi take-down of Tim Kennedy along the boards. Two fan favorites and a guy from South Buffalo were not going to face the brunt of fans’ frustrations; Tim Connolly would.

The team’s loss of Connolly due to injury in their series against the Flyers last April is quietly pointed to as the turnaround moment. Losing the team’s best penalty killer and recently appointed alternate captain was a big deal, but hard to accept after discrediting him for so long.

It is not to say that Connolly’s decade in Buffalo was an unquestioned success. Lindy Ruff slapped an “A” on his sweater for the first time only in his final month as a Sabre. The less-experienced Roy, Pominville, and Vanek carried the leadership torch instead. He was tentative with his shot, could skate as if afraid of new injuries, and in his worst slumps, seemed lost. His playoff performances since 2006 were disappointing.

But there was never a sense he was a bad teammate. If anything, he was quite the opposite.

He anchored the point on the power play better than most of his teammates could. He turned himself into an important penalty killer. He battled through serious concussion issues, of which he’ll likely suffer from into the latter years of his life. When confident, he could skate through or around defenses, and he could set up his wingers on highlight-worthy passes. His ‘05-’06 playoff performance should not be forgotten by any Sabres fan. His consistency when on the ice seemed to never be acknowledged.

Wide-eyed optimists in the summer of 2001 might have fantasized a day where Tim Connolly joined a short list of numbers in the arena’s rafters. Being the prized return on fan favorite Mike Peca and a “Young Guns” appearance at the 2002 All-Star Weekend likely furthered such anticipation. Instead, Friday will add him to the collection of former Sabres mercilessly booed by an increasingly impatient and fickle fan base.

The drive from Buffalo to Toronto can be refreshing. A new country, a new culture, a vibrant city.

Tim Connolly took that trip this summer, starting a new life with a new team and handling his departure on the most professional of terms. No matter how or when you ask him, Tim Connolly won’t say a bad word to get back at Sabres fans.

There’s no need to. They’re stuck with Ville Leino.

University at Buffalo graduate Mark Byrnes is currently a fellow at The Atlantic. You can follow him on twitter (@markbyrnes525) or check out his work for The Atlantic: Cities.

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Posted on December 16, 2011, in Sabres/NHL and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I think the fact that Connolly was acquired in the Michael Peca trade was part of the reason he got off on such a bad note.
    Peca was a blue collar player who centered the first line (where else would that happen? Ever? He’s a good two way player, but seriously?) all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Then he sits out a year due to a contract dispute. There’s a certain segment of Sabres fandom that buys into the narrative that Peca is just a blue collar guy that is under appreciated by management rather than what he was – a solid two way player whose best playing days were behind him and whose numbers were more a product of Lindy Ruff’s system.
    Connolly was a much better two way player than he was given credit for, but he was no working class hero like Peca. I’ve always been of the opinion that when it comes to our sports teams, Buffalo is just as image conscious as LA. We want our athletes to be like us. I think it is one of the town’s fatal flaws. I think that part of what holds Buffalo back is its wholehearted embracing of its rust best identity that never told the whole story.
    In any case, I don’t think that Connolly was worth the money that he was paid by the Leafs. I still think his career with them will bear that out.

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