Toronto’s potentially exciting, yet fragile, future at center

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Trying to get things right in Toronto is a tricky thing for general manager Brian Burke. The team this summer was in need of a playmaker on offense to try and help out the goal scoring duo of Nikolai Kulemin and Phil Kessel. While both of those guys were 30+ goal guys without a real assist man up the middle, their potential to do even more damage is sky high if they can. That led to speculation about the Leafs interest in free agent Brad Richards when free agency began, but Burke made it clear they weren’t going to mortgage the future to get him.

Instead, Burke moved on to former Sabres center Tim Connolly and acquired injured scoring center Matt Lombardi from Nashville in the Brett Lebda-Cody Franson trade. Connolly and Lombardi have both had big offensive seasons in the past but both also have checkered injury histories as well.

While Connolly is healthy this offseason, Lombardi is still recovering from a concussion suffered last season. Oddly enough, however, hopes are high that Lombardi can do work with the team during training camp. The Leafs say, however, that they won’t rush him back.

For Connolly, he knows his own injury history is a point of concern for many Leafs fans but he tells NHL.com that he’s eager to get things going with a fresh start in Toronto.

Connolly is most likely the next first-line center under the microscope in Toronto, courtesy of a two-year, $9.5 million contract he signed in July. His game will be dissected like his body has been examined. Which, considering how often virtually every inch of his 6-foot-1 frame has been broken, torn or smashed, is a lot.

“I’m just looking forward to my time in Toronto, getting ready for that,” he said about shaking his injury jinx. “That’s what I’m thinking about now. I think the fan support there, it’s just a hockey town. I think it will be just an exciting experience for me.”

Should Connolly stay healthy all year and Lombardi finds a way to come back completely from the devastating concussion that ended his season early last year, the Leafs situation at center gets really interesting and talented all of a sudden. While the Leafs can’t actually count on getting anything from Lombardi, the skills he’s shown in the past had him as an emerging playmaker. His final year with Phoenix two seasons ago had him scoring 19 goals and adding 34 assists. Those 53 points were a career high and numbers he used to sign a nice two-year deal with Nashville before last season. Two games into that season it was all over.

For Connolly, he’s shown the ability to be a solid playmaker himself. Two seasons ago, he had a career year with 17 goals and 48 assists good for 65 points. If he can get back to that form and avoid injury (Connolly last played 80+ games back in 2002-2003) he could be a huge boost to the Leafs offense.

The Leafs depth chart at center with healthy Connolly and Lombardi would look awfully good:

  1. Tim Connolly
  2. Matt Lombardi
  3. Mikhail Grabovski
  4. Tyler Bozak
  5. Darryl Boyce
  6. Nazem Kadri (likely being moved to wing)

Having Lombardi there would be a luxury but it’d be a huge boost for their depth and offense. They’ll likely have to start the season without him there meaning Grabovski continues as the team’s #2 man up the middle and that’s just fine too as he had a breakout season last year. That said, if it means getting more offense and having to juggle positions and placements around, coach Ron Wilson will find a way to make it all work. After all, having a wealth of solid options is something the Leafs haven’t been able to claim for a few seasons.

Good health is the key here, obviously, and if the Leafs can get some of that and some good luck going as well, they could be a team that surprises people in the East. It’s not as if we haven’t seen teams come out of nowhere to win before as it happened with Tampa Bay just last season. For Leafs fans, however, a return to the playoffs would make Brian Burke the newest deity in Toronto.

Video: Price takes out his frustration, as the Habs were crushed again

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It’s gone from bad, to worse, to an absolute nightmare for the Montreal Canadiens.

A three-game trip through California is never fun for opposing teams, but this was misery for the Habs. They were outscored a combined 16-5 in three games against the Sharks, Kings and Ducks, with few, if any positives beyond the second period in a 6-2 loss in Anaheim on Friday.

Montreal hasn’t won since its season opener on Oct. 5, and is now on a seven-game losing skid, unable to generate much offensively with a league worst 10 goals scored through seven games before tonight, while giving up plenty of goals at the other end.

That is a recipe for disaster and even though it’s still early in the season, this has to be a major concern for coach Claude Julien and, in particular, general manager Marc Bergevin.

Read more: Is there a trade to be made between the Penguins and Canadiens?

Down by three after the first period, Montreal had 30 shots on goal during the middle frame and managed to trim Anaheim’s lead down to one heading into the third period. And then, just when it seemed like maybe they were on a path toward an inspirational comeback on the road, it all fell apart.

Three straight goals for Anaheim, with journeyman forward Derek Grant scoring the first two goals of his NHL career — in game No. 93.

As you can probably tell from the clip below, Carey Price was visibly irritated, as he whacked his goalie stick against the post after the sixth Anaheim goal.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Canucks defeat the Sabres, as the losing continues in Buffalo

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The Buffalo Sabres remain stuck on just a single win to begin the season. Jack Eichel is sick of losing, but the losing continues.

Returning home from a four-game road trip out west, the Sabres had an opportunity ahead of them to get back into the win column. The Vancouver Canucks, hardly a powerhouse in any way, were in town. They had played — and lost — the night before in Boston. And then the Sabres went out and were thoroughly outplayed in a 4-2 loss that, one could argue, flattered the hosts.

They weren’t able to take advantage of an early lead after Justin Bailey was allowed access to the net off the rush. They couldn’t hold the lead after Eichel dangled Ben Hutton and then scored on a shot Jacob Markstrom should’ve stopped. They gave up yet another short-handed goal, putting that number at six for the Sabres just eight games into the season.

Instead, Buffalo spent most of the night in its own end, giving up 37 shots through two periods. Hard to pin this, in any way, on goalie Chad Johnson.

“First of all, I thought we didn’t defend well and close quick enough in our defensive zone. We were a little bit slow there tonight. We need to be more aggressive and on the puck,” said head coach Phil Housley after the game.

While the Sabres were badly outplayed, one of the deciding moments in this game was a controversial video review in the second period. Vancouver took the lead on a goal from Daniel Sedin, although Housley challenged for a potential offside after it looked like Jake Virtanen didn’t have control of the puck as he entered the zone.

The linesmen looked over the play for a lengthy review before officials came to the conclusion that Virtanen did have control of the puck as he broke in over the blue line. The goal stood and the Canucks controlled the remainder of the game.

“I disagree with the call, totally,” said Housley. “In my opinion, he knocks the puck out of the air. He never has possession.

“But I call that 10 out of 10 times offside and I would continue to challenge that again.”

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Roberto Luongo leaves game with apparent injury, as Panthers fall to Penguins

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The Florida Panthers lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday. Making matters worse was the fact their goalie Roberto Luongo left the game in the third period with an apparent hand injury.

The injury occurred after a collision in the crease with Penguins forward Conor Sheary.

Luongo immediately went down to the ice in pain. A replay from above the net showed Luongo’s right hand getting caught in an awkward position against the post after coming into contact with Sheary as he cut through in front of the crease in pursuit of the puck.

The injury forced James Reimer off the bench and into the game with the Panthers trailing by a goal. MacKenzie Weegar tied the game for Florida before Sheary scored the eventual winner about eight minutes later, on a night when the Penguins fired 48 shots on the two Panthers goalies.

Luongo gave up three goals on 36 shots before leaving the game. The Panthers now head out on the road. They’ll visit the Washington Capitals on Saturday.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Video: More offside drama had Sabres coach Phil Housley up in arms

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Just hours after the NHL admitted to an offside challenge error, there was another controversy during the Sabres-Canucks game on Friday.

Vancouver appeared to take the lead on a Daniel Sedin goal. However, Buffalo coach Phil Housley challenged the play for offside, after replays showed Jake Virtanen may not have had complete control of the puck as he broke in over the blue line.

The following challenge resulted in a brutally long review. For Buffalo, it was also unsuccessful as, surprisingly, officials deemed Virtanen did have control of the puck as he entered the zone. The goal counted, Vancouver took the lead.

Housley was not happy about it.

Not only was the challenge unsuccessful, but the Sabres were penalized for delay of game as a result.

From the NHL:

After reviewing all available replays and consulting with the Linesman, NHL Hockey Operations staff confirmed that Vancouver’s Jake Virtanen had possession and control of the puck as he entered the attacking zone prior to the goal. According to Rule 83.1, “a player actually controlling the puck who shall cross the line ahead of the puck shall not be considered ‘off-side,’ provided he had possession and control of the puck prior to his skates crossing the blue line.”

Therefore the original call stands – good goal Vancouver Canucks.

It took 4:27 to come to a decision, too.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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