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:
- Tim Connolly
- Matt Lombardi
- Mikhail Grabovski
- Tyler Bozak
- Darryl Boyce
- 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.