By Chris Block
Third year pro, and IceHogs defenseman, Brian Connelly is emerging as one of the AHL’s best defenseman.
Not best young defenseman, the Bloomington, Minnesota native is one of the top blue liners in the AHL, period.
A player head coach Ted Dent described as “our Duncan Keith,” Connelly is handling a heavy workload given to him by his boss, and thriving in doing so.
“He’s playing at a high level, the highest I’ve seen since he’s been in Rockford,” Dent told us. “[Connelly] is just controlling the game, shooting the puck well, making good decisions and he’s playing good defense too away from the puck.”
Dent was an assistant for the previous four seasons in Rockford prior to being promoted to head coach in July after Bill Peters took a job as an assistant under Mike Babcock in Detroit. So, Dent has seen Connelly up close and helped guide the undersized blue liner’s pro career.
Connelly (5-10, 185) has always been a good puck mover, but his ability to lead and hit a teammate in stride and control the flow of his team’s attack has never been better.
On the defensive end, Connelly still makes mistakes but he’s getting beat far less than ever before. His positioning has improved, which experience probably has a lot to do with, but he’s also battling harder than ever on his end of the rink.
“Yeah, I feel confident out there,” Connelly told us. “It’s helped having Teddy as the head coach, because it’s the same systems. I feel really good out there and I just hope to keep it going the rest of the year.”
Being named alternate team captain has made a positive impact on Connelly as well. At 25, and with more than two full seasons under his belt, Connelly is a de facto grizzled veteran in this year’s batch of young Hogs. There are just three Hogs older than the 25-year old; Brandon Segal (28), Brian Fahey (30) and Brett McLean (33). Segal acts as Hogs’ team captain. Fahey and McLean share alternate duties with Connelly. All were appointed those honors by the coaching staff back on October 27.
Connelly has embraced his new role as team leader and hopes he can be a strong influence on his teammates in getting his team’s early season struggles back on the right track.
“I just want to be more vocal,” Connelly said. “Have the guys look up to me and lead by example - I think I do that out there. I try to play each game hard, with a lot of intensity. Hopefully my teammates will just see that and try to match it and we can all play as a 20-guy unit.”
Through 13 games, Connelly shares the IceHogs lead in points (1g, 12a, 13pts) with center Brett McLean. While there’s no question Connelly is by far Rockford’s ice time leader, there’s no statistical evidence to back that up. The American Hockey League keeps Time on Ice stats, but they don’t release those numbers. Still, Connelly is currently skating on both primary power play units, on the first defensive pairing with veteran Brian Fahey and in most important situations.
“He’s basically our Duncan Keith here,” Dent says. “He can play 25 to 28 minutes a game and still be effective.”
Connelly earns his minutes and says he’s learned to economize his energy to withstand the extra ice time.
“It’s early in the season. I have a lot of energy,” Connelly says. “I feel comfortable out there and I know my limits. I think as the years have gone on, I have learned how to play well in this league. I conserve my energy.”
Last season through 13 games, Connelly had 9 points, all assists – was a minus-4 and had 23 shots on goal. Through 13 games in 2010-11, the IceHogs went 6-6-0-1.
So far this season, Connelly has 13 points, is an even plus/minus on a 5-7-1-0 team and has amassed 47 shots on net (3.6 per game), impressive for a blue liner.
Rockford’s offense runs through Connelly. And while the offense has struggled – the IceHogs have been held to 2 goals or less in six of thirteen games (0-6-0-0), they’ve also averaged 37.3 shots in those six losses. Connelly and his mates are generating chances.
He is staying positive.
“I think we’ve done a lot of good things,” Connelly asserts. “Obviously, some of the games haven’t gone the way we’ve hoped on the scoreboard, but we just have to keep working on staying with our systems and staying confident, clicking with each line and getting used to playing with each other. I think we’ll turn it around and once we get going, I think we’ll be a good team out there.”
Dent is appreciative of Connelly’s work, and it’s clear the feeling is mutual. When asked about the transition with his new head coach, Connelly was highly complimentary of Dent.
“[Dent] is a good guy. He’s really positive,” Connelly says. “He let’s us play out there. He played as a player and he knows how it is night in, and night out.
“System wise, it’s pretty similar. There are a few different things, but for the most part we’re just trying to replicate the Blackhawks organization with their systems. I think it’s gone well, we just got to clean up a few things and hopefully we’ll do that this week.”
With Nick Leddy’s assent and overall depth of the Blackhawks’ blue line, there isn’t much space up in Chicago right now for Connelly. However, his improved performances have not escaped the radar of scouts from around the National Hockey League.
While Connelly may not have a place in the Blackhawks plan, his play could open opportunities for him elsewhere if Stan Bowman chooses to use Connelly as an asset in a deal at some point between now and March.
–The IceHogs are trying to solve their early troubles on home ice.
Away from the BMO Harris Bank Center, the Hogs are 4-2-1-0.
At the BMO, Rockford is a dismal 1-5-0-0 and has lost five consecutive games since defeating Grand Rapids on Opening Night, October 8.
In those six home contests, the IceHogs have been outscored 24-10 (-14).
Worse, Rockford’s power play is 0 for its last 18 man-advantage opportunities on home ice.
Five of Connelly’s 12 assists have come on the power play. He’s been on the ice for 10 of Rockford’s 11 power play tallies including the past nine. The IceHogs’ power play is ranked 18th in the AHL (17.2%) heading into Wednesday night’s game at home against Oklahoma City.
If the Hogs can fix the power play and pot some of those chances, their home fortunes should turn around.