The acquisition of Tim Connolly to the Toronto Maple Leafs' top-six unit will, on the surface, add depth to the team's forward ranks. But the hopes of playoff hockey in Toronto could well rest on the shoulders of the injury-prone centerman next season.
Not because Connolly is capable of vaulting the Leafs to new heights single-handedly---because he cannot---but his role as a stop-gap to centers Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne will play a pivotal role in the Leafs' short-term success with Phil Kessel as its offensive leader.
It's no secret that Tyler Bozak failed in his prolonged audition as a number-one centerman. Such an expectation was foolish from the onset but sadly neccessary due to the futility of the Leafs' management in the past. To put it simply, general manager Brian Burke had little to work with and instead of developing his NCAA free agent acquisition on the third line, which would have been appropriate to his skill-set, Bozak was lauched into the fire as Kessel's centerman and was expected to survive. Fast-forward a year and here we are, Bozak has moved down the depth chart and Connolly is the Leafs' new number-one center---or at least a new project for Kessel.
Connolly, 30, is renowned for his puck handling abilities and even provides a two-way game---averaged 1:43 shorthanded ice-time last season. Unfortunately, he is also known for injuries post-lockout. His past two seasons have been his most durable, playing 73 and 68 games respectively. His injury concerns aside, Connolly has amassed 250 points in 302 games since the lockout, and it should be noted last season was his least productive with 42 points in 68 games. On the surface it may seem as though Connolly had an off-year, but that's not the case. Connolly only averaged 16:54 of ice-time as the Sabres' third-line center last season, as opposed to 18:37 TOI/G in the 2009-10 season. Moreover, Connolly averaged 3:43 of powerplay ice-time per game in the 2009-10 season, but only played an average of 2:49 on the powerplay last season. The difference? Connolly scored an impressive 27 powerplay points, which led the Sabres, with increased ice-time on the man-advantage, but regressed to only 19 powerplay points when his ice-time decreased. The moral of the story? Connolly, despite his defensive acumen, is better suited in a top-six role as a powerplay specialist. Considering the Leafs lack a) a centerman for Kessel, and b) efficiency on the powerplay, Connolly may well thrive with the Leafs considering he'll be getting ample ice-time. Consider that Mikhail Grabovski averaged the most powerplay ice-time among Leafs centers last season with 3:08 PP TOI/G and scored 15 powerplay points. Connolly should average well over that amount with the first powerplay unit and be given every opportunity to produce.
The obvious concern, as previously mentioned, is Connolly's health. It's near impossible to predict whether Connolly can play a full season, or at least in the vicinity of 75 games, but rest assured he'll produce near a point-per-game clip whether his injuries are behind him or not. For the sake of an offensive projection, let's assume he does play 82 games next season. Quote me for a 70-point season from Connolly as the Leafs' number-one center.
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