Tim Connolly

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.

Yes, Thornton and Marleau have been dreaming of a run like this

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 07:  Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after Patrick Marleau (not pictured) scored the game winning goal against Kevin Bieksa #3 (L) and the Vancouver Canucks in overtime of Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at HP Pavilion on May 7, 2013 in San Jose, California. The Sharks defeated the Canucks 4-3 to sweep the series 4 games to 0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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After seeing them suffer some ignominious playoff defeats, plenty of people are happy for Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton as they enter their first Stanley Cup Final.

The two veteran San Jose Sharks forwards aren’t playing coy about it, either; they’ve been picturing such scenarios for ages.

Both Thornton and Marleau seemingly uttered the same things as Game 1 approaches against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday.

“This is everything I’ve been dreaming about for a long, long time,” Marleau said.

It’s hard to believe that we are months removed from a time when it seemed like one or both of these longtime Sharks were in the thick of seemingly legitimate trade rumors. Marleau, in particular, sounded like he might be on the verge of moving on.

Instead, they’re as deep in the postseason as they have ever been and Thornton is talking about his beard.

Life is good.

Joel Ward believes NHL should retire No. 22 in honor of Willie O’Ree

RALEIGH, NC - MAY 15:  NHL ambassador Willie O'Ree talks with the Capital City Crew and the Raleigh Youth Hockey Association during a clinic, Hockey is for Everyone, sponsored by the NHL and the Carolina Hurricanes at the Cary Ice House on May 15, 2010 in Raleigh, North Carolina.   (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images for NHL)
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Sometimes players wear a jersey number as a tribute to a childhood favorite. Sometimes it’s merely to mark their birth year and other times it’s merely what was handed to them.

For Joel Ward, his 42 has a lot of meaning, and it brings to mind black athletes who were pioneers in their respective sports.

Yes, indeed, Ward wears No. 42 to honor Jackie Robinson. As the San Jose Sharks forward told ESPN, he’d love it if the NHL discussed retiring No. 22 in honor of its first black hockey player, Willie O’Ree.

“I definitely think Willie should be recognized for sure,” Ward said. “The league obviously does that with task force but I do think that Willie should definitely be a big part of the league for sure for what he did. It’s a no-brainer. Without Willie, it would be tough for me to be sitting here today. I definitely think Willie should be a big part of this.”

Sounds like a great idea, one that would echo the MLB doing the same with Robinson’s No. 42.

For more, check out that great ESPN story.

Sharks and DeBoer ready for Pittsburgh, ‘the fastest team in the league’

SAN JOSE, CA - OCTOBER 10:  Head coach Peter DeBoer talks to his team during their game against the Anaheim Ducks at SAP Center on October 10, 2015 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH — The San Jose Sharks are one of the NHL’s best skating teams.

Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette, who watched his Predators get bounced by the Sharks in Round 2, said as much.

So too did St. Louis bench boss Ken Hitchcock, whose Blues were eliminated by San Jose in the Western Conference Final.

“They’re a fast team,” Hitchcock said. “They skate fast. They skate fast, they support the puck. They might look faster than they are, but they’ve got a lot of quick players.

“They’ve got a lot of aggressive skating players. They got a lot of guys that can motor.”

Yeah, the Sharks are quick.

But according to their head coach, maybe not the quickest.

During today’s Stanley Cup media availability, Peter DeBoer called the Pittsburgh Penguins “the fastest team in the league,” adding this series wouldn’t be just about skating, but the possession game as well.

“If you control the puck,” DeBoer explained, “it’s harder to create speed.”

And with that, the 2016 Stanley Cup Final blueprint took shape.

To be fair, the speed-versus-speed angle had already been established. Almost immediately after beating Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Final, Pens captain Sidney Crosby was asked about his club’s looming matchup with the Sharks.

“It’s going to be fast hockey,” Crosby said. “Two teams that want to play the exact same way, that want to get their D involved (and) their power play is really dangerous.

“It’s going to be quite the series.”

On defense, both teams feature good mobility, highlighted by a star offensive defenseman: Brent Burns for San Jose, Kris Letang for Pittsburgh.

“Both have great shots and get pucks through,” Pens d-man Justin Schultz said, per the Tribune-Review. “Both are always jumping up. And great skaters. Both are very mobile.

“Tanger is for sure a lot smoother [as a skater]. But Burnsy is still fast. And more powerful, maybe. He’s a big boy, and he’s going to be tough to handle.”

Each respective blueline plays a big role in the generation of team speed. Both the Pens and Sharks have excellent transition games featuring quick, speedy forwards, so it makes sense — the defensemen, tasked with getting those forwards the pucks, need to be mobile too.

Up front, there’s speed across the board. Pittsburgh’s Carl Hagelin won fastest skater competition at All-Star weekend four years ago. Last week, Sharks d-man Brenden Dillon said 36-year-old Patrick Marleau is “still one of the fastest skaters in the league.” Phil Kessel and Matt Nieto can fly, too.

So when previewing the Stanley Cup Final, don’t be fooled when you read predictions of a “quick series.”

That doesn’t mean it’ll be over quick.

Just means it’ll be quick.

Related: Need for speed: Sharks, Pens brace for ‘fast hockey’ in Stanley Cup Final

Penguins or Sharks? PHT makes its Stanley Cup Final picks

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 21: Patrick Marleau #12 of the San Jose Sharks skates on the ice against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on November 19, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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After 14 series, just one pick left — the Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks.

It’s a great match-up, with tons of talent on each side. However, we’d be lying if we said we saw it coming. (We didn’t.) The Penguins, who fired their coach halfway through the season, haven’t been this far since 2009. The Sharks, who missed the playoffs altogether last season, have never been this far.

Looking back on our conference finals picks, PHT staffers did fairly well, with both yours truly and James O’Brien nailing each series score (Penguins in 7, Sharks in 6) on the nose. Unfortunately, the virtual coin continued to struggle, as did the actual Ryan Dadoun.

Conference finals results (Overall record)

Brough: 2-0 (10-4)
Halford: 1-1 (8-6)
O’Brien: 2-0 (10-4)
Dadoun: 1-1 (6-8)
Tucker: 2-0 (10-4)
Alfieri: 2-0 (9-5)
Just Flip A Coin: 1-1 (6-8)

On to the Stanley Cup Final…

Brough: Sharks in 6

Despite what happened last season, I believed Pete DeBoer when he predicted a “big bounce-back” in San Jose. Because when a roster still boasts Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, it shouldn’t be written off. That being said, I didn’t think they’d get this far. The one thing I was skeptical about was the goaltending, since Martin Jones had never been a full-time starter in the NHL. But he’s been solid enough. And besides, the Sharks have so much firepower, and they’ve been so committed to checking in these playoffs, that they’ve rarely needed their goalie to stand on his head. Obviously, the Penguins have been great too, but the Sharks look like an unstoppable force to me.

Halford: Sharks in 7

The Sharks either have incredible luck or a really good medical staff, because I can’t remember the last time a team came into a Stanley Cup Final this healthy. Right now, San Jose’s only injury concern is Matt Nieto‘s upper-body ailment, and it sounds like he might be back soon anyway. This is why I give San Jose the edge. I could honestly see Trevor Daley‘s broken ankle being the difference in a series between two such evenly matched teams.

O’Brien: Sharks in 6

Mike Sullivan’s turn with the Penguins has been both beautiful (in the exhilarating pace) and brilliant (in how that tempo leverages Pittsburgh’s strengths and camouflages weaknesses). The Sharks strike me as the antidote, however. If the pace is frenetic, San Jose boasts comparable firepower. If transition goes from lightning-fast to molasses-slow, Peter DeBoer enjoys a significant advantage on defense. Here’s hoping this series boasts the sort of thrilling hockey that can convert new fans. Either way … advantage Sharks.

Dadoun: Penguins in 7

There’s a lot of love for the Sharks so far and I have to admit I wouldn’t mind seeing Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau finally win a championship, but the Penguins shouldn’t be overlooked. This is a team that has the luxury of putting Phil Kessel on the third line, after all. That kind of offensive balance in the Penguins’ top three lines will make them the biggest challenge that goalie Martin Jones and the Sharks’ defense has faced yet. That depth is also the difference between this year’s Pittsburgh squad and the ones that have fallen short in recent years. Certainly there’s a lot of reasons to like the Sharks, too. This should be a great series.

Tucker: Sharks in 7

This series features the top scoring teams in these playoffs. The Sharks averaged 3.5 goals per game, while the Penguins averaged 3.2 goals per game. I expect this to be a thrilling match-up featuring some of the league’s most talented players on both sides. I think goaltending is going to be a huge factor. Can a 22-year-old rookie in Matt Murray continue his strong run of play in the biggest series of them all? He’s done well with every test so far, but if the Sharks get to him and force Marc-Andre Fleury into the series — or force Mike Sullivan to make that decision — I don’t think Fleury will be able to conjure a championship-winning performance against the lineup the Sharks possess.

Alfieri: Sharks in 6

At this stage of the game, there’s no doubt that these two teams are as evenly matched as can be. Offensively, the Sharks are led by Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, while the Penguins are led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. In goal, Martin Jones and Matt Murray have both had their moments of brilliance this postseason, but both have zero experience when it comes to the Stanley Cup Final. The biggest difference is on defense. That’s where I think the Sharks will win the series. San Jose is loaded with Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Paul Martin, Justin Braun and company. The Pens, who area already without Trevor Daley, have Kris Letang, but the drop-off is significant after that.

Just Flip A Coin: Penguins in 6