TAMPA – Tim Connolly remembers rooming with Craig Berube on the road in Long Island.
A wide-eyed 18-year-old rookie, fresh out of high school, Connolly was just thrilled to be in the league. That was over ten years ago. Berube is now 45, long since retired and currently an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Time has a funny way of heaping perspective even when you're least aware of it. For the 11-year NHL veteran, time has expanded an ever-present appreciation for the game.
"As you get older you realize that ... a lot of guys that I played with aren't playing anymore and are even coaching," said Connolly in conversation with the Leaf Report. "I played with guys and then they coached me; James Patrick [in Buffalo], for instance. You realize it goes by fast and you want to have fun and at the same time winning is the most fun, so for me, that's what it's all about."
As a teenage rookie with the Islanders in 1999-2000, Connolly – the 5th overall pick in the 1999 draft – was thrust immediately into the ills of a losing environment. With Butch Goring behind the bench, the Isles went 24-48-9-1 (13th in the conference) with Connolly finishing third on the team in scoring, having spent the previous two seasons with Erie in the Ontario Hockey League.
"I was enjoying it then too because I was right out of high school," said the 30-year-old with a big smile.
Another dreadful season in Long Island followed before he was dealt to Buffalo – the Mike Peca trade – where he spent the next eight seasons, playing in two conference finals alongside a pair of respected leaders in co-captains Chris Drury and Danny Briere.
A sturdy, hard-nosed pro if there ever was one, Drury – also recently retired – had perhaps the most lasting impact. One of the great winners of his era – be it in college, the NHL, or internationally – Drury was renowned for knowing what it took to win.
"Just to see him prepare and all the little things that he did," explained Connolly, "not just scoring goals or making assists, [but] penalty-kill, [he'd] get down on one knee to block a shot, take important faceoffs, and the guy's a winner and it kind of rubs off on the rest of the guys. You really notice it when a guy's doing all those little things and working hard and I think it makes the guys around you better and want to play the same way."
Quiet and laid-back in demeanor, Connolly is subtly imparting his years of wisdom – and that of former teammates Drury and Briere – into the minds of one of the NHL's youngest teams. Now in his third NHL season, Tyler Bozak has been carefully studying the finer points of Connolly's game, plucking tips and tools of the trade, especially in the defensive zone.
"He's helped me a lot actually," said Bozak, capably filling Connolly's spot alongside Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul with six points in the last six games. "There's lot of stuff that I would never even think about that he'll bring up with me. It's just tiny, little things throughout the game that maybe I gain a second of open-ice that I wouldn't even thought would help. He sees stuff like that.
"When I come off from a shift he'll tell me about it or even after a game or at a practice and we're just skating around there'll be little pointers that he can help me with.
"I'm always searching for him on the ice at practice asking him for advice and stuff like that."
Connolly has produced – seven points in nine games – when healthy this season, a fact for much of his NHL career. But rather quietly, he's also settled in as a source of experience, passing along the understated details required to win.
"I've been on losing teams and winning teams and know the difference," he concluded. "And playing with guys like Chris Drury and Danny Briere and see the way they prepare and way they go about business and the way they enjoy it, playing the game, it's something that you take and you want to bring into your own game and your team's game.
Scintillating with eight goals in the last six games, the Leafs powerplay has found its way into the NHL's elite (5th best entering Monday's action). "Once you get it going," explained Lupul, "you get out there get into that faceoff and feel like 'Oh, we're gonna score this time for sure' whereas three weeks ago we were kind of in that situation where it was like the ref would put his arm up and we're like 'Ugh, not again' (laughs). We're feeling a lot more confident now. I think it's a big step for us because now we've seen what works so if we do go in a spell again where we're four or five games without a goal, you go back look at the video and say this is how we were doing it when we were successful, let's get back to that."
The team leader with nine powerplay points, Lupul points to quicker puck movement as the critical improvement on the man advantage. "I think at some points in time we got kind of stagnant where Phil had it on the half-boards and was kind waiting and waiting to make the play and now he's really trusting the other guys," said Lupul.
James Reimer took to the ice for the fourth consecutive day on Monday, spending an hour – his longest yet – with goalie coach Francois Allaire. Reimer returned to the ice with a light 15-minute workout on Friday, followed by 25 minutes on Thursday, and 45 minutes on Sunday. The Leafs will continue to incrementally increase the intensity of his workouts, provided that he remains symptom-free.