With general manager Brian Burke acquiring John-Michael Liles, Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi and Cody Franson this off-season, there’s little doubt the Toronto Maple Leafs have improved heading into the 2011-12 season. But with a logjam on defense and cap space left to improve some of the Leafs’ needs, it’s unlikely Burke is content with the current roster moving forward.
Before discussing what Burke may do next in his blueprint, let’s first analyze the moves he’s done in the past 48 hours. While Burke may not have found the number-one center the Leafs so desperately covet, he managed to acquire a decent secondary option in Connolly. Injury concerns have clouded the 30-year-old’s career post-lockout, but his ability to produce has never been questioned—although last season was his least productive in the last six years with 42 points in 68 games. If healthy, and that’s a big if, it would certainly be within the realm of possibility for Connolly to produce in the 70 point range with Kessel as his linemate. Perhaps the most undervalued skill that he’ll add to the Leafs is his defensive acumen. While he’s no defensive stalwart, he could certainly play a defensive system and contribute on the penalty kill—averaged 1:43 of shorthanded ice-time per game.
The Leafs’ special teams also improved with the addition of Cody Franson today. The 23-year-old defenseman produced eight goals and 29 points in his sophomore campaign with the Nashville Predators last season. While he’s another large body on the blueline at 6’5 and 215 pounds, he’s not known to throw hits—only 81 last season. He did, however, contribute on the second powerplay unit and produce respectable point totals given he averaged roughly 15 minutes of ice-time per game. If Franson continues to develop, he could well establish himself as a top-four defenseman with regular shifts on the powerplay. And keep in mind that Nashville plays a defensive system and its top-pointer only managed a measly 50 points. With added ice-time and a new system, Franson could hit 40 points next season under the right circumstances.
The addition of Lombardi is simply a bonus. If he manages to get healthy and put his concussion problems behind him—and that is once again a big if—he could contribute as a secondary scorer. His speed is second to none, but his offensive potential probably doesn’t exceed anything within the 50 point range. Obviously, the addition of Lombardi was the price to pay for Franson, but whether he plays is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
So, with all that said, what’s next? Well, taking a glance at the Leafs’ defense corps, Burke could afford to relinquish one his defenseman to fill another need—or to unload a bad contract. And with bad contracts in mind, Mike Komisarek is the new kid on the trade block. If a team, like say, the New York Islanders, decide to take on his contract to get to the cap floor, the Leafs could once again take advantage of the situation. While it’s unlikely any trade Burke makes from now on will import any front-line talent to the roster, the Leafs still require some bottom-six forwards to add some grit and veteran leadership. But who knows with Burke? If he’s fixated on adding some truculence to the top-six, it’s not unfathomable that he shakes up the roster with a blockbuster trade, especially after losing out on the Brad Richards sweepstakes. Moreover, there’s some intriguing options in the free agent market to upgrade the bottom-six. The two most notable being Mike Grier and Chris Drury. Both players are capable of playing the penalty kill and providing a leadership role on a young team. If they could be had relatively cheap, I think they’d upgrade the the Leafs’ bottom-six considerably.
With Connolly and Grabovski occupying the Leafs’ center positions, is it possible Burke may be in the market for another star winger? You get the sense Burke is not yet content with the Leafs’ top-six, and with Connolly signed on for two years, perhaps that makes Grabovski expendable? All these questions will be answered in due time, but for now, Leafs Nation is buzzing with the excitement of what tomorrow brings.
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About the Author: Toronto Maple Leafs Blogger, Journalism Student and Sports Editor at Cambrian College, Hockey Fan, Air Guitarist, Tim Thomas-like Road Hockey Goaltender