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Connolly battles to get off 'bubble' Sabres center confident his best is yet to come

Tim Connolly offers the words not as opinion, but as matter of fact. He makes his case with calm assuredness, the stock response of a man who has faced more questions and criticism than perhaps any other player in recent Buffalo Sabres history.

"I played four years in this league, and three out of those four years I was in the top three on my team in scoring, including the Sabres," Connolly said. "I've only played in this league as an 18-, 19-, 20- and 21-year-old. So I definitely think that the best is yet to come."

It seems like so long ago, but the last time we saw Connolly on the ice, he was barely old enough to drink a beer.

But youth wasn't going to excuse him from the catcalls. The finesse player acquired for Michael Peca, a fan favorite known as Captain Crunch, was enduring a miserable season. Connolly was making $1.127 million and had a career-low 25 points and a subterranean minus-28 rating.

Then things got worse. A wicked preseason hit knocked him out for the entire 2003-04 season. The lockout ensured he wouldn't play in the NHL for 30 months.

"I just want to get back in the lineup and back to the way I used to play, producing offensively for this team," Connolly said. "I've only played two years with the Sabres. I played as a 20-year-old and a 21-year-old. I think I'm a bit more mature now."

Connolly can't be considered a project any longer, not at 24 years old and not on a team with difficult decisions to make at forward.

Connolly came into camp as a bubble player. The Sabres have a surplus of NHL-caliber forwards. Ahead of Connolly on the depth chart at center are Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and Derek Roy. Big prospect Paul Gaustad is competing for a spot, too.

"He's in a battle," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "But in Tim's case he's really matured. He put the extra time in to get himself bigger, stronger. It really is about his career, and I think he's trying real hard to resurrect it."

The Sabres have been delighted by Connolly's approach to camp. He arrived at 190 pounds, looking much more muscular than before. Even though the team's media guide for 2003-04 listed him at the same weight, he said he was closer to 180.

Connolly said he also built up his confidence while he was away. He was cleared to skate during the lockout and ventured to Switzerland. Although hockey there isn't very physical, he felt better about himself with every shot he absorbed.

"The concussion is in the back of your mind, but you can't really think about it when you're on the ice," Connolly said. "But after that first hit, the first few hits you take you get a little more confidence with each one. Now that's completely behind me, and I don't want to think about it."

Connolly played between 25 and 30 minutes a night for Lagnau, recording eight goals and three assists in 16 games before a partially torn quadriceps ended his season.

"Tim is coming off a pretty good string of bad luck with injuries," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said. "I think he wants to make a statement, and quite honestly I hope he does."

Connolly couldn't have picked a better time to make his second first impression. The NHL rules are designed to benefit skill players just like him.
Ruff, however, is withholding judgment until he sees Connolly in preseason games.

"It still comes down to a speed game," Ruff said. "You're not going to have a lot of time, especially on the rush, to stop up and make a lot of plays because that back pressure is going to run you over. So it'll be interesting in that sense. He still has to skate. You can't pull up and stickhandle."

Despite his youth, Connolly has demonstrated he can be a playmaker from the day he entered the league. He was only 18 when he notched 14 goals and 20 assists for the New York Islanders. The next season he had 10 goals and 31 assists.

The season after he was dealt to the Sabres he had 10 goals and 35 assists, finishing third in team scoring behind Miroslav Satan and Stu Barnes and just one assist behind Satan for the team lead in that category.

"Not everyone, including himself, knows his capabilities and what he can do out there," said Sabres forward Adam Mair. "He's got a tremendous amount of talent. I think it's just having the trust of the coaching staff to be able to go out there and be allowed to do what he can do and show what he can do. Once he gets confidence, he definitely can help this team."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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