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Connolly Slotted In As First Line Centre

Saturday, 02.07.2011 / 6:24 PM / Mike Ulmer's Blog
By Mike Ulmer  - Mapleleafs.com commentator
  
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Brian Burke has signed 30-year-old Tim Connolly for two years because he is looking for alchemy.

Alchemy is about turning apparently disparate parts into gold. Those ingredients are the gifted but streaky Phil Kessel and the gifted but oft-injured Connolly.

“I’ve never played with him (Kessel) but I’ve seen him with the Leafs and with Boston,” Connolly said Saturday via conference call. “He has tremendous speed, tremendous talent. I’ve usually found chemistry with those kinds of players.”

Connolly said he was ecstatic about playing with the Leafs. “I’m a huge New York Yankees fan,” he said, “and this to me is the hockey version of playing for the Yankees.”

While most of his family is from Western New York, Connolly has kin in Hamilton and a hockey -loving grandmother in Burlington.

Were he Russian, Tim Connolly would have long since acquired the word enigma. He has marvelous quickness, shiftiness and hand skills. He is built for speed, six feet and if the bios are right, just under 200 pounds.

But in his eight years with the Buffalo Sabres, Connolly has lost nearly two full seasons to concussions even if the last one was five years ago.

Connolly has never scored more than 18 goals and went goalless in the Sabres last 30 playoff games.

But those numbers tell only a portion of the tale. Based on his career points, Connolly would be a respectable 50-point player if he played the entire season. He has had four seasons where he was within shouting distance of a point a game. The concussions are a beachhead that obscure the fact that in his first four years in the league, Connolly lost a total of three games to injury.

The Leafs are buying a player whose talent level induced the New York Islanders to draft him fifth overall in 1999, a player who is just a year removed from a 65-point season.  Connolly could flame out. He could stretch himself into a 70-point player. This is why they play the games.

For his part, Kessel is one of a handful of players who can look at consecutive 30-goal seasons as a disappointment.  Now he has a centreman who, while older, has a comparable skill set and style.

Both players are right hand shots but with a healthy Connolly at his side, Kessel’s production could rise to 40 goals or better.

“My job is to get Phil the puck in the right spot and then take care of the defensive part of the game,” Connolly said.

Of interest is the scant two-year-term on Connolly’s contract. By the time the deal expires, the Leafs should have a good indication on the future of Joe Colborne, the six-foot-four centre acquired from Boston. Colborne has first-line skating and hand-skills but needs at least another year of polishing with the Marlies.

The Leafs have addressed both ends of the special teams equation.  John-Michael Liles has been brought in to run the power play. Connolly, meanwhile, is an outstanding penalty killer.

This, it appears, is the team the Leafs will take into the regular season. It is a team that has stood relatively pat when you consider the tumult of the free-agent swap meet, but for the first time it seems complete. Not perfect but with the impending signing of Luke Schenn, Tyler Bozak and perhaps Clarke MacArthur, complete.

Bozak, last year’s number one centre finally has his pass to the third line where he will likely work with Colby Armstrong and either Nazem Kadri or perhaps Matt Frattin.

Should the Leafs re-sign Matt Lashoff, the defence will be eight deep with the Marlies Korbinian Holzer nearly ready for the NHL. The goaltending tandem of James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson is locked in. Joffrey Lupul will play alongside Kessel and Connolly.

This is the team, chassis frame and trim. The Leafs are neither the most talent-laden or talent-thin team in the NHL. Like all teams, even Connolly’s New York Yankees, they will run or stall on alchemy.
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