Whether the Toronto Maple Leafs' depth chart remains unchanged until the opening day of the regular season shouldn't deter from the fact that, on paper, its third-line may be the best it's been in years.
While the need for a number-one center ultimately remains the Leafs' target to solidify a berth in the post-season, the depth the club has added this off-season should not be overlooked. Tim Connolly may not be the number-one pivot the Leafs were looking for, but he does provide the top-six---and Phil Kessel---with a signifcant offensive upgrade compared to that of Tyler Bozak in the role last season. Not only did the acquisition move Bozak down the depth chart, but it placed he and the Leafs in a better position to succeed now that Bozak doesn't have to worry about centering a star such as Kessel---which was far too much pressure for a player basically fresh off the NCAA ranks. That, and Bozak should now have Colby Armstrong on his wing for the forseeable future. The pair established great chemistry in the second-half of last season on the penalty-kill, often creating scoring opportunities and displaying sound positional play.
While there were several factors that led to the Leafs missing the playoffs once again last season, a lack of depth was certainly near the top of the list. Aside from the Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur line, there was absolutely zero consistency in the line combinations throughout the season. Head coach Ron Wilson continuously sifted through his limited options to establish a legitimate top-six unit, but to no avail. The lack of another top-six center ultimately led to the dismantling of any chemistry potentially established on the third or second-line---let's be honest, the Grabovski-Kulemin-MacArthur line was the first-line---and it crippled the Leafs in the standings. There's no denying the Leafs could use another star or two to aid its quest to respectability, but that is not the only route available to general manager Brian Burke. And this was evidenced with the Brad Richards sweepstakes. Burke missed out on the biggest unrestricted free agent available, and then immediately shifted his focus on Connolly, the second best center that was on the free agent market. He then traded spare parts for the services of Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi, thus adding a considerable amount of depth to the roster. And make no mistake, Lombardi can be much more than simply a salary dump, and Burke knows this. Lombardi is capable of playing the left wing position, thus allowing Bozak to play center---led the Leafs with a 54.6 faceoff percentage---and adds something the Leafs lack, aside from the Grabovski line... a left-handed shooter. Not only does this give the third-line an advantage offensively, but Lombardi's speed and two-way ability make him a great fit on the third-line with Bozak and Armstrong. Bozak is an accomplished face-off man, Lombardi is capable of scoring 40-50 points, and Armstrong adds a considerable amount of grit along with some offensive upside. If the line can establish chemistry in the early going of the season, the Leafs, unlike last season, can dress three scoring lines without having to worry about the opposition snuffing out its offense on a consistent basis. And with a top-nine unit, Kessel is much more likely to hit the 40-goal plateau---with or without Connolly---with less attention fixated on him from the opposition---and media.
Of course, all this hinges on Lombardi's health heading into the 2011-12 season. If he truly expects to be ready for training camp, this will benefit the Leafs greatly, as the team will have an indication if he's capable of sustaining the type of play that netted him a career-high 53 points two seasons ago. If not, Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin(natural right winger)---who will be competing for the third-line left-wing role regardless of Lombardi's status---are also feasible options for the third-line---Kadri is a left-handed shooter; Frattin right-handed. Not only that, but if Connolly is uncapable of playing a large portion of games, the line juggling could once again commence on a regular basis. However, the additions of two roster players, and prospects near NHL-ready, should ensure some consistency in the face of injury this time around.
If the Leafs finally attain the playoffs next season, expect the offensive output of its top three lines to play a key role in the matter.
Follow me on Twitter @RonGuillet