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.

Report: Markov wants $12 million over two years from Montreal

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At the draft, Montreal GM Marc Bergevin said his club had many roster holes.

Now he knows the cost of filling one.

Per TVA, veteran blueliner Andrei Markov is seeking a two-year, $12 million extension to stick with the club — one that would carry a $6M cap hit, up slightly from the $5.75M he was making on his previous deal.

Markov, an unrestricted free agent, is 38 but coming off a pretty productive year — he scored 36 points in just 62 games played, and averaged 21:50 TOI per night.

His ice time significantly jumped in the playoffs, up to 26:09 in Montreal’s opening-round playoff loss to the Rangers.

Bergevin has said he’d like to have Markov back, but noted the club has limits. The term of Markov’s reported ask isn’t too unwieldy — it’s a two-year commitment — but the cap hit could be an issue. Remember, Bergevin is also trying to re-sign last year’s second-leading scorer, Alex Radulov. Alex Galchenyuk needs a new deal as well.

(Unless he’s traded.)

On top of all this — oh yes, there’s more — is the looming contract extension for Carey Price. The star goalie is heading into the last year of his deal and eligible to sign an extension on July 1, which promises to be a monster contract. Price is currently the NHL’s fifth highest-paid netminder at $7 million per, but could join Sergei Bobrovsky and Henrik Lundqvist as the only goalies to earn more than $8M annually.

Which brings us back to Markov who, according to TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, is representing himself in negotiations. One has to think that dollar figure will come down, especially if Montreal starts entertaining other options — like Karl Alzner, the former Caps d-man who says he’s interested in playing in Montreal.

Whatever the case, Bergevin is going to have to address this situation soon. There are plenty of moving parts, but rounding out the defense has to be near the top of his priority list. Right now Montreal has just five blueliners under contract: Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Brandon Davidson, Jordie Benn and David Schlemko.

Alzner wants long-term deal, says he’s interested in Habs

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You can hardly blame Karl Alzner for wanting to cash in July 1.

Not that he’s hard up for money or anything, but the last contract Alzner signed in Washington was a club-friendly deal that paid him $11.2 million over four years. That’s a cap hit of just $2.8 million for a guy that plays top-four minutes against tough competition.

Now an unrestricted free agent, Alzner’s got the opportunity to make much more on the open market.

He wants some security, too.

“I will wait to see my options, but I am only 28 years old and I can tell you that I would like to get a long-term contract,” Alzner told Le Journal de Montréal (translated). “It is always attractive for a player to be able to settle in the same city for a long time. It would be my dream to sign a long-term agreement.”

Alzner added that the Canadiens are an intriguing team that he’d be willing to join. He also said that talks with the Capitals seem to have stalled.

Related: Alzner meets with Vegas, but will test free agency

Brendan Smith still talking to Rangers, ‘trying to make it happen’

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It’s only a few days until July 1 and defenseman Brendan Smith still doesn’t have an extension in place with the New York Rangers.

Not to worry, says his agent. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Smith is going to sign elsewhere.

“No one should read anything into the fact that we don’t have a deal yet,” Anton Thun told the New York Post. “You’re never really close until it’s done, but both sides are trying to make it happen. We’ll have to see.”

Thun told the Post a month ago that Smith, an unrestricted free agent, was “open” to returning to the Rangers.

But there’s also been speculation that the Blueshirts will pursue Kevin Shattenkirk in free agency, which would probably mean less money available for Smith.

It remains to be seen if the Rangers will, indeed, make a big push for Shattenkirk. The addition of Anthony DeAngelo in the Derek Stepan trade may have lessened their urgency in that regard.

“He’s a puck-moving right-handed defenseman that can run the power play and shoot the puck,” GM Jeff Gorton said of DeAngelo, per Sporting News.

Which sounds a lot like Shattenkirk, no?

Smith, 28, was traded to the Rangers from Detroit on Feb. 28.

Sens extend McCormick — two years, $1.3 million

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Looks as though forward Max McCormick has a future in Ottawa.

On Tuesday, the Sens signed McCormick to a two-year extension worth $650,000 annually — and, perhaps most importantly, it’s a one-way deal in the second year.

McCormick, 25, also has a $250,000 guaranteed AHL salary next season.

The deal comes after he set a career high and tied for the AHL Binghamton team lead in goals last year, with 21. McCormick also appeared in seven games for Ottawa — this after playing 20 in ’15-16 — and emerged as a high-energy guy with an edge to his game.

Despite not being overly big (5-foot-11, 188 pounds), McCormick fought seven times for Binghamton last season, and led the team in penalty minutes. The year prior, he scrapped 12 times between the Sens and Baby Sens.

A spot at the NHL level could soon materialize. The Sens have already announced they’re moving on from free agent forward Chris Neil, and the futures of fellow UFAs Viktor Stalberg, Chris Kelly and Tommy Wingels remain uncertain.