When the Nashville Predators signed Matthew Lombardi in 2010, many people thought that the team found its perfect center. Even skeptics who believed his breakthrough 2009-10 smelled like a classic contract year outlier admitted that his combination of speed, defensive aptitude and occasional offensive creativity would probably make him a natural fit for Nashville.
Sadly, that plane never really lifted off the ground as concussion issues plagued Lombardi since he fell face-first into the boards on October 13. He only ended up playing two games for the Predators, failing to score a single point before the Preds packaged him with Cody Franson in a trade to Toronto that looked bad the moment it was announced and keeps looking worse with each passing day.
Franson’s solid promise probably gives the Maple Leafs the “W” in that trade on his own merit, but Nashville did manage to unload the last two years and $7 million of Lombardi on Toronto. Rich teams like the Maple Leafs can take advantage of risky moves like these; while it’s easy to say that the Leafs can just shelve Lombardi’s $3.5 million cap hit on the long-term injured reserve if he can’t play, Toronto still would have to actually pay him.
One might wonder if the Maples Leafs are anxious to get Lombardi on the ice when you combine the uncomfortable idea of paying him to recover from his injury with the tantalizing premise of upgrading this team down the middle with the additions of Lombardi and Tim Connolly. Thankfully, Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke seems keen on taking a patient approach instead.
That doesn’t mean Toronto general manager Brian Burke will push his luck by rushing centre Matthew Lombardi back for the vital first part of the schedule. Not even in the wake of reports that the centre’s summer of recovery from a severe concussion continues to go better than most people thought.
“It’s too soon to tell,” Burke told Sun Media. “As we always do with head injuries, we’ll err on the side of caution.”
Which means keeping Lombardi out of contact drills at the start of training camp and perhaps no game action until well into the schedule. The hopes is that the club’s new projected No. 1 centre, Tim Connolly, clicks with Phil Kessel and that Tyler Bozak gets accustomed to his likely spot as No. 3 pivot behind Mikhail Grabovski. That would buy valuable time.
Lombardi and Connolly rank as serious wild cards going into next season. The two centers could help Toronto make a playoff bid if they can reach a moderate level of health, but that’s a big if for both players. Getting a healthy two years out of at least one of those pivots would go a long way in breaking what must be an interminable playoff drought for many crazed Leafs fans. It’s unclear where exactly Lombardi is on his road to recovery, but we’ll keep an eye out for updates along the way.