The Toronto Maple Leafs go into the 2011-12 season with plenty of wild cards. From James Reimer backing up his breakout season to their unexpected top line keeping it together and plenty of health questions, the Leafs really could go either way.
Even with some rather big “ifs” floating around, Matthew Lombardi’s battle with post-concussion syndrome ranks as one of the most mysterious (and potentially difference-making). Lombardi scored a great contract to become a significant checking center for the Nashville Predators, but he instead just played in two games before a concussion ended his season in Tennessee.
In what some might consider a surprisingly quick recovery (or semi-recovery), Lombardi will make his preseason debut with the Leafs tonight. Who knows if he’ll really be able to stick with the team from a health and fitness standpoint off the bat, but the Maple Leafs aren’t easing him into the action. He’ll center a line with Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel during the Nashville Predators on Saturday.
While he practiced in full-contact drills for a week, this still seems like a surprisingly quick phase in his comeback. Lombardi knows that physical challenges will come sooner or later, too.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” Lombardi said on Saturday after a pre-game skate at the Air Canada Centre. “It’s going to be a weight lifted off my shoulders…to get this first game in and then move on and put everything behind me.
“I’m definitely going have some nerves going on but it’s good…It’s been so long. I’ve been so anxious the last couple of weeks. It’s finally here. Getting into a game and putting all the bad stuff behind me and moving forward…
“Mentally, I’ve been preparing to play. I had it in the back of my mind (since being cleared for full contact this week).”
“I’m confident I’m healed,” he said. “We play in a game that is physical. There’s always a risk even if I never had a concussion. That’s the way it is.”
Lombardi drew attention during his last season with the Phoenix Coyotes in 09-10, as he scored 19 goals and 53 points while exhibiting great speed and strong versatility. His concussion problems almost made him seem like a throwaway in the deal to bring Cody Franson to Toronto, but the shift-skating center could be significantly more valuable if he can stay healthy.
Of course, the Maple Leafs have plenty of “ifs” going into the season, but a healthy Lombardi could Toronto a more balanced team. We’ll see how things go for him during the next few days to see if that claim is valid, though.