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.

Bruins management failed to improve roster as planned

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After missing the playoffs for the second year in a row, the Boston Bruins went into the offseason with three major things on their to-do list:

1. Fix the defense.
2. Get a better back-up goalie.
3. Get “heavier” at right wing.

By the time the offseason was over, they’d:

1. Done nothing to fix the defense.
2. Signed Anton Khubodin to back up Tuukka Rask.
3. Signed David Backes.

In other words, Cam Neely, the Bruins’ president, and Don Sweeney, the general manager, went 1-for-3. Signing Backes made the B’s heavier on right wing. There’s no disputing that.

But the defense? It has 39-year-old Zdeno Chara on a top pairing with 20-year-old rookie Brandon Carlo. And it still has Adam McQuaid in a top-4 role.

That’s not meant to slight McQuaid. It is less about him than the two right-shot defensemen who have been traded away and not replaced: Johnny Boychuk and Dougie Hamilton.

The fact is, when the Bruins were winning championships and going to the Stanley Cup Final, McQuaid was a bottom-pairing guy. Since his role has been expanded, the Bruins have not made the playoffs.

Read more: The Bruins didn’t fix their defense, but Neely still expects improvement

Which brings us to the backup goalie. Khudobin was a bad signing, plain and simple. He went 1-5-1 with an .885 save percentage before he was dispatched to the minors — and, if you were paying attention, it was not a huge surprise that he failed to deliver. This is a goalie who hasn’t put up good NHL numbers since 2013-14. Heck, he spent most of last season in the AHL.

And make no mistake, for bubble teams like Boston, backup goaltending can be the difference between making and missing the playoffs. Not only does it cost wins when a bad backup plays, the coach’s reluctance to use his backup means more work for the starter. Consider: only three other goalies have started more games than Rask (37) has this season, and he has not looked particularly fresh in his last few outings.

That, finally, brings us to the head coach. Claude Julien has been on the job for almost a decade, and perhaps it’s time for a new voice with some new ideas. After all, the league is faster now, and these aren’t Milan Lucic‘s Bruins anymore. Sometimes, change can be a good thing.

But just remember — if Julien does, indeed, get fired — Bruins management had three things they wanted to fix over the summer, and they only fixed one of them.

And that’s not on the coach.

Related: Julien’s job reportedly in danger

They fixed the defense, but now poor offense is ‘killing’ the Bolts

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Two weeks ago, Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said the team had lost its defensive mindset. His remarks came during a four-game losing streak in which the Bolts surrendered a whopping 22 goals.

Since then, things have tightened up considerably. Tampa Bay has only surrendered 10 goals over the last five games — which coincided with Ben Bishop‘s return from injury — but now, there’s a new problem at hand.

The Bolts can’t score.

“It’s not for a lack of trying, not for lack of chances,” head coach Jon Cooper said following Thursday’s 2-1 loss in San Jose, per the Tampa Bay times. “The shooting sights are off on the stick, too many missed nets.

“It’s killing us.”

After scoring four times in a win over Buffalo on Jan. 12, the Lightning offense has really dried up. They were only able to beat Sergei Bobrovsky once in a loss to Columbus on Jan. 13, then squeezed out a 2-1 win over the Kings on Monday.

Tampa then suffered consecutive 2-1 defeats in Anaheim (in OT) and San Jose.

All told, it has just five goals in the last four games.

One could point to all the missing bodies as a reason for the slump. Steven Stamkos‘ absence looms large. And while fellow injured forwards Ryan Callahan, J.T. Brown and Brayden Point aren’t elite offensive guys by any stretch, they were relied upon for depth production.

Not having Victor Hedman is a problem, too. The minute-munching blueliner generated plenty of offense from the back end, and is second only to Brent Burns in d-man scoring across the league.

This isn’t to say Tampa Bay is bereft of scoring options, though. Nikita Kucherov, Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn were all in the lineup last night. Killorn had a terrific chance for an equalizer late in regulation, but sailed his shot from the slot wide of the net.

“It was a grade-A chance,” Killorn said, per the Times. “And I missed.”

Tampa Bay needs to figure this all out, and fast. While the Bolts are only three points back of Toronto for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, they’ve got to hurdle four teams — Philly, Carolina, Florida and New Jersey — to get there.

Thankfully, there’s some promise on the horizon. The Lightning are in Arizona tomorrow night, to play a Coyotes team that ranks 29th in the NHL in goals allowed.

Five team stats you may find interesting

St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen is slow to get up after giving up a goal to Washington Capitals' T.J. Oshie during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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27.5 — Shots per game for the St. Louis Blues. Only one team, New Jersey (27.3), is averaging fewer. So while it’s true that goaltending has been their major issue, it’s also true that in the eight games since the Winter Classic, the Blues have averaged just 22.9 shots, and that’s not very many at all. Perhaps it’s related to the goaltending — i.e. they could be playing more conservatively in order to protect Jake Allen and Carter Hutton. But coach Ken Hitchcock said recently that Vladimir Tarasenko “is getting checked to death, and other people are responsible for creating the space for him. He’s trying to play against four guys right now. We need more participants in order to help him.” So it’s not all on the goalies. In his last six games, Tarasenko has no goals and just nine shots total.

58 — Goals scored by the Washington Capitals since Christmas. That’s an average of 4.5 per game. Only the Rangers (4.4) and Penguins (4.0) are averaging four goals or more in that time frame. Since Christmas, the Caps have been led in scoring by Alex Ovechkin (17 points); however, the resurgence of Evgeny Kuznetsov (15 points) has also been key. Kuznetsov only had 17 points in his first 32 games. He’s up to 32 in 45 now.

73.8% — The Buffalo Sabres’ penalty killing, which has been terrible. In fact, the Sabres are on pace to have the NHL’s worst PK of the salary-cap era:

pk

3 — Power-play goals for the Blue Jackets in their last eight games. In a related story, the Jackets are 3-5-0 in those eight games. “There’s gonna be times where it just doesn’t feel like it’s going in,” said captain Nick Foligno after last night’s 2-0 loss in Ottawa. Columbus went 0-for-3 with the man advantage against the Sens, who got a 42-save shutout from Mike Condon. The Jackets still have the NHL’s best power play (24.6%), but the Maple Leafs (24.1%) are catching up. The Leafs have scored 12 PP goals in their last 10 games.

14 — Games the Colorado Avalanche have lost by three goals or more, the most in the league. Just how bad are the Avs? Well, they’re 30th in goals for and 30th in goals against. And if they keep up their pace, they’ll be the worst team of the salary-cap era:

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Leafs claim Griffith off waivers… again

SUNRISE, FL - DECEMBER 29:  Seth Griffith #24 of the Florida Panthers takes a shot on Al Montoya #35 of the Montreal Canadiens during a game  at BB&T Center on December 29, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Seth “suitcase” Griffith is off to join another team — a team he’s joined once already this season.

On Friday, the Leafs announced they’ve claimed Griffith off waivers, just two months after exposing him on the wire and losing him to Florida.

Toronto had originally acquired Griffith off — yup, you guessed it, waivers! — when the B’s cut him loose just prior to the start of the regular season.

The 23-year-old, who played under Leafs assistant GM Mark Hunter in OHL London, appeared in three games for Toronto this season, going pointless. Griffith had a bigger role in Florida — notching five assists in 21 games — but suffered a concussion earlier this month and, after recovering, was a healthy scratch for three straight games.

Per multiple sources, the Leafs are sending Griffith straight to their AHL affiliate, the Marlies.