There’s no question that getting a new toy is fun. And for NHL teams—and their fans—there is an element of “fun” in going after and signing available free agents. (Look at the Sabres. They were like the proverbial kid in a candy store the past few days, with their new-found Pegula money and the ability to go after any player they chose. They did not necessarily make the wisest decisions, but it was fun for Sabres fans…) For some fans, at times it’s just wanting something you don’t have, or perhaps a case of feeling that something that someone else has, has to be better than what we already have.
In any event, there was much gnashing of teeth before the Brad Richards “decision” this Canada Day weekend. (At least he didn’t host a TV show to make the announcement.) When the smoke cleared and it was evident that Richards was re-joining his old coach, John Tortorella, with the Rangers, I sensed that Leaf supporters were mixed in their response. Some had built up a lot of hope that the 31 year-old center would sign here to become our new number-one pivot. But others seemed relieved that the Leaf brass didn’t commit to a ridiculously long term and cap number to get a guy who has some injury issues and won’t likely be a superstar for that much longer.
I posted recently that Richards may well not be the right fit for the Leafs, and I still believe that. Would he have helped? Certainly. But 25 million over the first two years of the contract is absurd money, in my mind, and I don’t believe he, even with other changes, would have been enough to make the Leafs a true Eastern Conference contender, much less a Cup team.
Now the Leafs turn their attention (and I’m sure they already had these scenarios mapped out ahead of time) to other priorities, as in the Tim Connolly signing and perhaps other moves (including obtaining Franson and Lombardi, useful pieces going forward). I’m confident they won’t be left at the altar, if there is something they really and truly want to accomplish, either in free agency, the RFA market, or via the trade route.
Connolly is an interesting move. Once upon a time he was a very popular and productive Sabre, but fans and local
media have long since soured on him. That said, he is a talented guy, though more a skill guy than a rugged grinder. Buffalo
The big concern is how long he will stay healthy. He has fought past a couple of major head injuries. His "numbers" are modest in recent seasons, though 48 assists in 2009-'10 is not bad at all. In his last three playoff seasons (28 games), though, he is without a goal.
This is not to suggest this is a poor signing. If Connolly, in a new setting, can find his groove and also mesh linemates that will thrive because of his playmaking skills, then this could be a useful addition. Though not likely the impact player at 30 that he once was, I have to believe he will immediately be penned into the number-one center slot, assuming Grabovski stays with Kulemin and MaCarthur (if MacArthur returns). That means he will play alongside Kessel, a potentially strong combination.
Interestingly, I don't know if Connolly has ever scored 20 goals in a season. He's a nifty guy with the puck, but more a playmaker than a finisher.
All this said, because they have built up their asset base and the cupboard is better stocked now, they have some room to maneuver if they want to locate someone else over the next few weeks. They already have what they want in goal and on the blueline (though the addition of Franson was a bit of a surprise for me), so they are essentially looking to add (one more?) another “top-six” forward and one or two more “bottom-six” guys. (It may be only one more bottom-six guy if Lombardi is healthy...) Some people are out there, and the Leafs will definitely act if they feel there is a guy available that will help. They have cap room and the front office desire to get better- now.
It didn’t happen with Richards, but two years from now, maybe even less, they (and Leaf fans) may well be glad they didn’t put all their eggs in his basket. Let the Rangers blow their brains out. Sather has done that repeatedly in his tenure with the Rangers, and it’s never amounted to anything. Maybe this time, he’ll be right. We’ll see.
In the meantime, they have Connolly and fans will just have to be a bit patient...again.