Sunday, September 25, 2011

Introducing the New Leafs: 2011

cody franson leafs
Today we have a guest post from my good friend Ted Rigby, who has previously lent his knowledge of all things moustachioed. We also intended to write together for the ill-fated John Olerud's Helmet, a baseball blog that died a fiery death.

Here is an introduction to the Leafs' newest acquisitions.    
Every season it seems there is a new wave of Leafs talent (I use the term talent loosely) coming over via free agent signings over the summer. This year has been no different as Brian Burke has been busy trying to tweak the Leafs lineup to fix the shortcomings of last year’s team. After a disastrous first half to the 2010-2011 campaign, things seemed to turnaround with the emergence of James Reimer as well as the offensive re-awakening of Phil Kessel after a gory month-long goal drought. So accordingly, the usual goaltending questions were less prominent than past years, and instead there was some focus on small issues, such as stabilizing a young defence core and finding that elusive top-line centre to feed Phil Kessel tasty treats. With these goals in mind let’s take a look at the newbs lined up to play this season for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Tim Connolly 

Let’s start with the marquee signing of Brian Burke’s offseason. This wasn’t exactly a glamorous move (and yes that is a double entendre referring to Connolly’s mug), as is usually the case when signing a 30-year-old with a penchant for long-term and/or freakish injuries. After missing only three games through his first four professional seasons, Connolly’s medical history since then has moved him from the ironman category to the china cabinet. His two serious concussions caused him to miss the entire 2003-2004 season and all but two games of the 2006-2007 season. Following those calamities have been serious hip and vertebrae injuries, both resulting in season-ending surgeries in the ’07-’08 and ’08-’09 seasons respectively.

Off the ice his reputation is different depending on who you ask, from the Buffalo media tagging Connolly as a selfish player and prima donna, to teammates claiming he was quiet but a consummate team player.

Despite the injuries and reputation controversies, Connolly, when healthy, has been a productive player, scoring at a pace since the lockout that would equate to 68 points over a full season. His reputation on the ice is of a playmaking centre, a piece missing from Phil Kessel’s side since his breakout season playing alongside Marc Savard in Boston. If Connolly can fill that role, then hopefully Kessel will be able to make that final jump to superstar, and continue to exact revenge for his embarrassing last pick status at the 2011 All-Star Game.

John-Michael Liles 

I don’t usually trust people who insist on making me say two first names, makes me confused (Jonathan Taylor Thomas?! That sounded like three different kids, not impressed), but I’m making concessions for the newest Leafs blue-liner. In a continuing trend, Burkie has brought in another of the best American players to Canada’s most loved/hated franchise. Liles has been one of the best offensive-defenseman in the league over his seven year career, with an average offensive output of 43 point over a full season, with at least half of those points coming on the powerplay. This has been a weakness for the Leafs in recent years (their PP was ranked 30th in ’09-’10 and 22nd in ’10-’11) with many teams simply shutting down Dion Phaneuf’s point shot and eliminating the defence from any kind of attack, a problem compounded by the departure of the puck-moving abilities of Tomas Kaberle.

Despite impressive numbers, Liles, like Connolly, found himself a victim of locker-room issues over the last two seasons, finding himself a healthy scratch at times. It could have been that Liles was a victim of high expectations, as head coach Joe Sacco mentioned a perceived lack of effort leading to some of Liles decreased workload, then add in the acquiring of Erik Johnson to Colorado’s rising defensive talents and suddenly Liles is expendable.

The perception is that Liles will slide into a top-four role with the Leafs, and this is good news as it looks like the Leafs may actually have a competent defence corps for once (Now, where can we bury the corpse formerly known as Mike Komisarek?)

Cody Franson 

The Leafs acquiring Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi for Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney initially looks like one of the most lop-sided trades in NHL history, but on closer inspection... well, it still looks kind of unfair. The crux of the deal was obviously Nashville’s need to dump Lombardi’s salary and avoid the risk of paying him another season for nothing (more on that later), but the real intrigue of the deal was the inclusion of Cody Franson.

The 24-year-old is still a high potential defender with offensive upside and at 6’5”, there’s also the assumption that he’ll grow into his size and improve considerably over the next few years. It’s easy to see how Franson would be overlooked on a team that boasts Shea Weber and Ryan Suter (as well as an up- and-coming Ryan Ellis), but to include him in a salary dump seems like another coup for Burkie. He’s above average on offense, quite capable on defence, and also saw some time on the Predators’ 2nd power-play unit last year, so he’s not a one-dimensional giant, but reasonably diverse for a young player. His thundering shot should also get quite a bit of attention at the point, and open things up more for the Leafs top lines when he is on the ice.

Matthew Lombardi 

Let’s just say that Nashville took a gamble by signing Lombardi to a big contract and ended up almost losing the farm. Lombardi was signed to a 3-year contract before last season with an annual cap hit of $3.5-million, with the Preds viewing him as a possible 1st or 2nd line centre. However, those plans were quickly quashed by a devastating concussion only two games into the regular season which would sideline him indefinitely, with questions on his status still circulating during the current pre-season.

Now usually injured players salaries are covered by the NHL insurance policy after the player has missed more than 30 games, however, Lombardi’s new contract was uninsured because of a pre-existing history of concussions (thanks to a Derian Hatcher elbow in the ’03-’04 playoffs). With plans in the works for a long-term contract extension for Shea Weber, Nashville needed to cut salary, so rather than risk paying Lombardi to be injured for another year, they packaged him with Franson and the MLSE bank vault happily accepted.

What the Leafs actually get is another high-upside player. Worst case scenario, he can’t come back and the Leafs have to pay him to sit, making the only real loss a roster spot and some teacher’s retirement savings. But best case scenario, the Leafs get a 3rd line centre with some of the best speed in the league, or at least an insurance policy for the fragility of Tim Connolly.

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