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.

Canucks avoid arbitration with Boucher, Horvat remains RFA

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The Vancouver Canucks still have some work to do this summer, but at least none of their players will take part in salary arbitration hearings.

After coming to an agreement with Michael Chaput, the Canucks reached a one-year, $687,500 deal with forward Reid Boucher on Monday.

Boucher, 23, has 112 regular-season games under his belt. He spent most of his career (82 of 112 games) with the New Jersey Devils before bouncing to the Nashville Predators (3 games) and then the Canucks (27 games) last season. He averaged a little more than 12 minutes per night with the Canucks, much like with the Devils in 2016-17.

While the arbitration hearings are covered, the Canucks face two lingering RFA situations: Brendan Gaunce, and most importantly, Bo Horvat.

Coyotes sign Langhamer, so only Duclair needs a deal

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The Arizona Coyotes handed a one-year, two-way contract to goalie Marek Langhamer on Monday.

Langhamer would be paid $660K at the NHL level and $67,500 in the AHL, according to AZ Sports’ Craig Morgan.

Langhamer turned 23 on Saturday. He got about the smallest cup of coffee you could ask for with the Coyotes last season: he appeared in one game for 16 minutes, allowing a goal on eight shots.

It was quite the year for the Czech-born goalie, who played seven games in the ECHL and 25 in the AHL along with that brief NHL appearance. He also played in the AHL and ECHL during the 2015-16 season, so he’s been bouncing around.

As a seventh-rounder (184th overall in 2012), Langhamer likely doesn’t take opportunities for granted.

The netminding situation is interestingly fluid in Arizona. Both Antti Raanta and Louis Domingue stand ahead of Langhamer – at minimum – but those two only have one year remaining on their current deals. If nothing else, there’s likely a “prove it” vibe at multiple levels now that Mike Smith is in Calgary.

With Langhamer settled, the Coyotes only have one RFA left to sign, but it’s a tricky one with forward Anthony Duclair. When it came to Duclair, GM John Chayka kept it pretty vague with the Arizona Republic’s Sarah McLellan.

“We’re still trying to determine the best value for the player and the team moving forward,” Chayka said.

Predators are one Johansen deal away from a salary cap work of art

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If you need to kill some time, play this game: which Nashville Predators contract is the biggest steal?

If Viktor Arvidsson is as much of a difference-maker as his limited NHL reps indicate, his $4.25 million cap hit over seven years is certainly in the running. Still, there are plenty of choices.

  • The defense alone is bargain-filled, making P.K. Subban‘s $9 million cap hit easy to stomach.

Ryan Ellis‘ $2.5 million cap hit doesn’t run out until after 2018-19. Mattias Ekholm‘s less of a “well-kept secret” following Nashville’s run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, yet his $3.75M steal runs through 2021-22. Roman Josi can be a bit polarizing but at $4M for three more seasons, it’s not controversial to say that he’s probably at least worth the money.

  • The offensive bargains begin with the top line.

Arvidsson has the makings of a legit first-line winger, and that deal is highly likely to be regrettable … for his agent and accountant.

Filip Forsberg‘s $6M isn’t as audacious as some of those defensive steals, but it’s still pretty nice. That total also makes it easier for the Predators to try to control costs for their one remaining big consideration: Ryan Johansen, who still needs a deal as an RFA.

  • Calle Jarnkrok is a pretty nifty get at $2M per season, especially if he grows with a contract that runs through 2021-22.
  • Scott Hartnell took quite the homecoming discount at $1M for 2017-18.
  • As you go deeper, the Predators enjoy some nice deals on players who are under ELC’s or second contracts: Kevin Fiala ($863K), Frederick Gaudreau ($667K), Ponuts Aberg ($650K) and Colton Sissons ($625K) could all be helpful contributors at low costs.

This tweet really sells the point, in case this post hasn’t: GM David Poile hasn’t been slowing down much since being named GM of the Year. And he might just be the best executive in the NHL right now.

  • It’s all pretty immaculate; even if you’re not a fan of Pekka Rinne, his $7 million cap hit expires in two seasons. By then, the Predators could very well transition to Juuse Saros, possibly echoing the Penguins with Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray along the way.

Overall, it’s an enviable situation, as Nashville’s clean cap ranks with Pittsburgh and few others as the best-looking in the NHL. That’s especially true when you consider the fact that the Lightning are allocating $8.8 million to the shaky duo of former Rangers in Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi.

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Still, the Predators aren’t done for the summer, as Johansen stands as a tricky situation. They don’t have the helpful deadline of arbitration looming, so the two sides are just going to have to figure something out … eventually.

Even so, Cap Friendly pegs them at $13.43 million in cap space, so they have room to work with their first-line center.

While teams like the Penguins and Blackhawks stocked up on high draft picks, the Predators’ greatest moves have largely come through shrewd drafting, savvy trades, and forward-thinking contract extensions. One can debate which setup is the best, but Poile’s work places Nashville in the upper crust, and their built to stay there for years to come.

Related: Matt Murray, Jake Guentzel could help Penguins compete for years.

Okposo to fans: ‘Thinking about your support brings a tear to my eye’

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In a lengthy and heartfelt letter, Kyle Okposo thanked the hockey community – especially but not only Buffalo Sabres fans and teammates – for their support after his hospitalization.

Okposo also shared some personal details about how a seemingly innocent hit affected his sleep and caused alarming weight loss, dropping him below 200 lbs. for the first time since he was 17. He said he checked into a hospital expecting to get help sleeping, only to go to ICU after a negative reaction to medication.

As scary as that experience was, it helped him put his career and life in perspective. Okposo also realized just how much fans, teammates, and people associated with the sport can help each other in times of need.

It’s a really great letter and worth reading in full (especially considering his praise for new Sabres management), but here’s one of the more inspiring excerpts:

When I turned my phone on, I had 500 messages waiting for me. Current players, former players, former coaches – everyone reached out. Even now, fans see me in Minnesota or Buffalo and say, ‘I’m just really glad you’re doing OK.’ It’s overwhelming, and it makes me proud to be a part of the hockey community. We’re a tight-knit group and we stick together. Thinking about your support brings a tear to my eye.

The messages from my Sabres teammates meant a lot in particular. I’ve only played with those guys for one year, with Matt Moulson being the exception, and we didn’t have the type of season that we wanted. The fact that all of them were so supportive through this shows that the bond between teammates really does transcend what happens on the ice.

Okposo noted that he appreciated playing in “Da Beauty League” last week, even though his team got “whacked.”

Read more about him being involved in that here, and how happy Zach Parise and others were to see him play in this article. Okposo also reaffirms the belief that he’ll be ready to go for Sabres training camp in that letter.