BUFFALO, N.Y. – Two severe concussions, one hip surgery and numerous broken bones later, Buffalo Sabres centre Tim Connolly is looking forward to his latest comeback.
“Yeah, I’m excited to get back,” Connolly said. “I’m feeling good.”
That’s a start.
Connolly is ready to return Friday when the Sabres host the New York Rangers. He’s back this time after missing 24 games with a broken rib. Before that, he missed the first 10 games of the season with a broken vertebra.
And that’s just this year for the eight-year veteran who’s missed 249 of a possible 368 regular-season games over the past four NHL seasons.
Just don’t ask Connolly to discuss whether he’s injury-prone.
“You guys are welcome to say or think whatever you want, it doesn’t matter to me,” he said
And don’t bother asking whether he intends to alter his style to avoid contact. He isn’t.
“I’m not going to shy away from getting hit. It’s part of the game,” Connolly said.
Together, that unwillingness to change has been both Connolly’s advantage and drawback.
When healthy, he is the Sabres’ top play-making forward. Combining a fluid, near-effortless skating style with uncanny on-ice vision, Connolly is capable of drawing defenders his way and then dishing off the puck to find an open teammate.
The numbers back him up. Despite all the time he’s missed, Connolly has 26 goals and 67 assists for 93 points in his past 119 games.
The trouble is, Connolly hasn’t been very healthy because his style also puts him in the position to get hit.
“His greatest gift is his ability to draw people to him and open other people up,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “And sometimes he puts himself in harm’s way. But that’s his greatest gift, and there’s no fear when he does it.”
Connolly broke his rib while attempting to make a play at the boards, where he was checked by St. Louis’ Keith Tkachuk. Three years ago, Connolly sustained his second concussion when he was skating through the middle with his head down and failed to avoid a clean check by Ottawa’s Peter Schaefer.
Then there’s simple bad luck. In February 2007, Connolly was close to returning from his concussion when he sustained a stress fracture in his leg while working out.
He also missed the entire 2003-04 season after sustaining a concussion in a pre-season game.
By comparison, Connolly proved resilient during his first four NHL seasons in which he missed only three games.
The Sabres thought so highly of Connolly that they re-signed him to a three-year, US$8.7-million contract in July 2006. Connolly’s in the final year of that deal and eligible to become a free agent, making the last half of this season very important in determining his future.
Ruff intends to ease Connolly back into the lineup, using him initially on the third and fourth lines, and on special teams. One reason is to not overburden Connolly. Another is Ruff doesn’t want to mess with the chemistry of his lines, which have been clicking as the Sabres have won four of their past five.
Connolly’s return has the potential to provide the Sabres a big boost. Buffalo’s lacked a consistent second offensive line to ease the load off a top line featuring Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy.
“We know what he can do,” Ruff said. “We have to hope that this last injury is his last one, he gets by it and becomes that player that we know he can be if he’s healthy.”
For Connolly, that’s always been the big if.