A Good Day for Toronto...
For those here inside the Blue and White Bubble still licking their self-inflicted wounds over the recent signing of Brad Richards in New York, take heart. All is not lost in Leafland, and your team's fortunes are slowly changing. No 90-point hockey saviour has come to the Leaf's aid, but what is emerging is a team with greater depth, a higher compete level, and better overall talent than we have seen in years.
With the signing of Tim Connolly, the top 6 is much more dangerous than you may immediately have realized. While there were health issues in the past with the New York state native, he is absolutely healthy by all accounts, and 110% good to go. And that is very, very good news for the Leafs faithful.
At just over 9 million for two years, the former 5th overall playmaking pivot is one hell of a hockey player, even if a tad overpaid, and less than...rugged. He possesses the pure skills to make something special out of a seemingly 'nothing' situation, with an uncanny ability to create space for himself, and soon, one Phil Kessel. Connolly can wheel at top speed, dangle like nobody you or I have ever seen in a Toronto uni, and he can roof the puck from in tight better than just about anyone. A line featuring Connolly, Kessel and Lupul equals three great shooters, two guys that can undress defenders at will, and a big, strong body to create havoc in the dirty areas. The question now becomes: is Kessel a 35-or 40-goal scorer with Connolly on board? I'll hazard a guess and say with a healthy Connolly in the mix, Kessel can easily threaten for 35-38 goals and that the team and its fans can count on somewhere between 75-85 goals from the top line alone. Considering the second line was good for 70 goals last season, we can safely say your Leafs just became a hell of a lot harder to defend against, and if MacArthur returns, the chemistry he developed with Kulemin and Grabovski will continue to flourish. Speaking of defense, 40-point D-man John-Michael Liles makes the back end a more potent offensive weapon at both even strength, and with the man advantage. The combined additions of Connolly and Liles will help tremendously in addressing Toronto's special teams concerns. A bonafide pucklugger like Liles effectively fills the void left by Tomas Kaberle, while diffusing pressure on returning two-way Swedish blueliner Carl Gunnarsson, who is slowly coming into his own.
Let's not count Mr. Bozak completely out either. While his sophomore year may have been decidedly lacklustre, there were flashes of brilliance, and he has become a pretty reliable two-way forward with a knack for winning draws. In a less pressure-packed role he will be able to keep the opposition at bay, while adding some secondary offense on a line with a pesky Colby Armstrong and one of Matt Frattin, top prospect Nazem Kadri, or a yet-to-be-named energy winger in-waiting. Either way, Bozak no longer has to contend with the issue of being preoccupied with setting up Phil Kessel, and will be able to exploit his entire skill set going forward. If he can relax a tad. He will no doubt start to bury some of those chances he gets.
Tim Connolly may not the big marquis draw Leaf fans wanted to believe Burke was going to have gift-wrapped and tied up with a big blue and white bow by Saturday morning. Still, Connolly may be a 65-point player, and what he can do for a talent-strapped Leaf team for the next two years is provide a buffer for the best of the young guys to grow into NHL-calibre players without the weight of the entire franchise on their backs, while making the Leafs a lot more competitive. Just as Francois Beauchemin filled a tangible role while Keith Aulie worked out the rough edges in his game and was later moved for a first round prospect and a top six winger, Tim Connolly is a very effective stop-gap solution for a team kicking and clawing its way back to respectability.
Is Burke done? I wouldn't count on it... with several bottom-six role players not invited back at this point, there may still be spots to fill. Tim Brent performed admirably as a Leaf, but he's a Hurricane now. Daryl Boyce and Joey Crabb have not been offered deals, either. Colton Orr may or may not be back in action after a nasty head injury, leaving just Jay Rosehill and Colby Armstrong returning to the bottom six. With Bozak on the third line, there are likely one or two spots available, meaning a deal for at least a checking centre could materialize. While such a move won't equate to a significant difference in point production, Burke holds those players in high regard. My sense is a deal for a veteran checking line forward will happen in the next week or so.
Here's a video teaser of Connolly at work to whet your appetites...and while he won't score a goal a game, the team is better today without spending a ton on one player for the next decade, while holding on to their best prospects.This was a good day for Toronto. Welcome to the Blue and White Bubble, Tim...