It’s been an interesting few days in Leaf land to say the least. Leafs brass opted to sit on their hands on Friday as the rest of the league’s front offices threw significant sums of money at free agents like a bunch of drunken sailors, leading some angry fans to assume true the least logical possibility that Burke simply said “screw it all!” in favour of an Afghan vacation. With Brad Richards choosing to consign himself to a Wade Redden-esque fate in the Big Apple, Leafs management sprung into action on day two with the signing of 30-year-old centerman Tim Connolly to a two-year, $9.5 million contract. Then, on day three, the Leafs proceeded to buy Cody Franson off of Nashville (more to come on that in Part 2).
Firstly, let’s get this out of the way about Brad Richards, and the dog and pony show that was last Friday at Newport Sports. Brian Burke flew to Sweden on the eve of 2009 free agency in hopes of sitting down with the Sedin twins if they became unrestricted at noon of July 1st. He went to meet Jonas Gustavsson on the same trip, who was at the time a target of the Leafs and was grieving the recent loss of his mother, whose funeral Burke offered to attend. If Burke felt the Leafs had a chance at signing Brad Richards on Friday, he would have been there with Cliff Fletcher and Dave Nonis making his pitch at Newport Sports. Instead, Burke decided to, in the pursuit something worthwhile, support a cause important to himself and the team over in Afghanistan on Canada Day. There’s a lot of questions to be asked about the way Brad Richards and his representatives conducted their business on Friday, but when it comes down to it there’s a reason why you can’t rely on a free agent with control over his own destiny as the key to your organization’s future plans. Regardless of the ballyhoo that surrounded the entire process, Richards as a UFA had the right to choose his next team on whatever basis he desired; city preference, or for a coach that probably won’t be there for more than a quarter of his contract. Within a few seasons, Brad Richards will join Drury and Redden as a cap casualty, both of whom had their career reputations damaged by the horrible contracts handed to them by the New York Ranger franchise.
Onto Tim Connolly. I see this signing as a two-year, center ice version of the John Michael Liles acquisition. It buys development time by adding a veteran player that can put up points with the icetime, and while certainly not without his question marks, has not been overcommitted to cap-wise. The salary figures are high but the cap flexibility the Leafs maintain in wake of these two acquisitions is particularly refreshing given the mania of long-term contracts doled out on Friday. Pair the acquisitions together and we could see significant powerplay improvement, with both playing the point at least as an experiment in Connolly’s case. Connolly isn’t a left-handed center as would have perhaps been preferred in Phil Kessel’s pivot man, but he is skilled at opening up passing lanes and putting it on his wingers’ tape, to the tune of 48 assists in 73 games in 2009-10.
This is a classic case of what you would describe as a 1A/1B centermen situation with Mikhail Grabovski and Tim Connolly. The question becomes: is that a playoff calibre tandem? Will Burke have to make a trade before it’s too late into the season to save this team offensively? The Leafs were tied for 10th in the Conference in goals per game last season at 2.60, and reasonably have to get that to 2.75 to have a shot at playing post-season hockey. It is surprising how much of that improvement will have to come from the bottom six in the Leafs’ case, as it really dropped the ball in terms of providing secondary offensive contributions last season. A full(er) season of Colby Armstrong, with Bozak shifted to the third line, and potentially a return for Lombardi should help (and what of Frattin?), but this is an area I highly doubt Burke is done addressing. As far as what level a playoff team’s top two centermen should be producing, the Bruins finished 3rd in the Conference with 62 point and 57 point centers in David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron. While you may say they were a great defensive team with historically good goaltending, they finished the season second to Philadelphia in goals per game in the Conference. The Washington Capitals became more of a defence-focused outfit last season but were atop of the Conference with a 65 point first line center in Nick Backstrom and a 45 point second liner in Brooks Laich. 1A/1B situations with two 55-60 point players has been done with success, but undoubtedly requires good by-committee offence, and Burke will have to improve the bottom six’s offensive capacity to make that happen. A few extra PP goals this year should help too, though the PP did not end up finishing as bad as is often perceived as the Leafs in fact finished in the top 16 in powerplay goals.
Of course, to succeed without all-star firepower up front takes in most cases solid team defence and special teams. The Leafs’ PK under new (assistant) coaching direction simply has to get out of the basement for the first time under head coach Ron Wilson, and Connolly believe it or not should help in that regard, certainly more than Richards would have. Connolly had an impressively low GA/60 of 4 on 5 ice time, right near the top of his team among players who spent significant time killing penalties.
The biggest concern and the running joke among opposition fans since the announcement of the Connolly signing is his familiarity with the infirmary. The concussions problems being the most wide spread concern after one wiped out his 2006-07 season, but Connolly has missed significant time with the following injuries since 2009 – broken rib, 24 games; foot injury, 10 games; groin injury, 8 games; nasal surgery, 4 games. Take it back another year, we have hip injuries, back injuries, more groin issues. Funny enough, Connolly started his career with 4 consecutive 80+ game seasons, but there’s no denying this is a brittle player and that Leafs Nation will justifiably hold its collective breath whenever he takes contact. But an average of 70 games in his last two seasons gives hope, and Tyler Bozak’s not overly productive but still familiar history with Kessel, as well as Joe Colborne and Nazem Kadri developing in the wings, will have to supply the depth to fill the gaps caused by games missed (and we’ll see about Lombardi). Certainly I think it’s fair to say that, as currently constituted, the Leafs will have to rely quite a bit on luck falling their way if they are to have a 2011-12 playoff campaign in their future.
From the stands to the bench
As an interesting sidenote about Brian Burke’s culture change, the Leafs have added 14 players since June 24 between the draft, trade and free agency and there has been a fairly common trait among them; quite a few of them were/are Leafs fans, Cody Franson being the latest one. Players who take special pride in wearing the Maple Leaf as a “dream come true” is something to be valued for sure. While I wished him ill will in the first paragraph, I can’t pretend like I wouldn’t be excited to have Brad Richards in a Leaf jersey… BUT, if that wasn’t the emotion Richards would have felt towards donning the Blue and White, then it’s not exactly a loss to get too bent out of shape over.
Coming up at MLHS
Part 2 will address the Franson and Lombardi acquisitions specifically (sneak peak: WE TRADED LEBDA!), with Burke’s proceeding off-season moves being the subject of the following installments. Joe Cino will have two more ‘What to Expect in 2011-12’ pieces with specific statistical breakdowns for Tim Connolly and Cody Franson coming in the next few days.