Recently on Twitter, I asked for opinions on how Leaf fans would rate the organization with regard to their off-season moves so far this summer. Opinions ranged from 5 to 8 (on a scale of 1-10), which only serves to demonstrate, yet again, that as fans, we all tend to see the same picture very differently.
I’m probably in the middle. The acquisition of Liles and Franson triggers the thought that we may be a bit better in terms of our 5/6/7 defensemen, especially if Komisarek plays as he did at times toward the end of last season. (I’m assuming Schenn re-signs, and Phaneuf, Aulie, and Gunner all show up happy and healthy—and playing well— in September…)
So that’s good, if not exactly inspiring. (I mean, we already had Kaberle, and the brass didn’t like him, because he was too soft. Liles and Franson aren’t exactly Scott Stevens, but they provide some skill from the back end, which I like…)
But my concern, and this feels like a recording from the last two summers, is that I’m not sure (at all) that we have really progressed in terms of our “top-six” or “bottom-six” forwards. Yes, we re-signed the RFA’s that Burke wanted to keep (MacArthur, Bozak) and yes, we made a minor splash by taking on Tim Connolly as a UFA. I just don’t quite see, though, how that adds up to being a lot better up front, and the Leafs have to be quite a bit better, in my mind, if they want to do more than just squeek into the playoffs next April.
I sense that Leaf fans are banking on a lot of “hope”—as in we “hope” Lupul will play like he did in his hey-day; that Grabbo will be as good as he did during last season’s surprise coming out party; that MacArthur will be the 2010 MacArthur, not the earlier version. And perhaps most prominently, that Connolly will not only be healthy, but perform as he did in his youthful prime (pre-injuries) with the Sabres.
That doesn’t even address the special teams issues, or the need for Bozak to improve significantly, for Kulemin to jump ahead, not back, and for the third and fourth lines to be able to contribute the way those units do on contending teams.
But back to Connolly. We’ve all heard that he is working out this summer harder than ever before. He seemingly has something to prove, especially considering how the Buffalo media (about one-tenth the size of the Toronto attention he’ll get) and fans tended to castigate him in his last years with the Sabres.
Observers there suggested he was basically done, that there was nothing left in the tank. Is that true? The organization seemingly had no interest in retaining him. But, we’ve certainly seen many athletes seemingly rise from the dead over the years. Good health, motivation and a change of scenery can sometimes bring about a rejuvenation.
But in this instance, we’re talking about someone who is battling past serious head injuries. And while he has a history as a playmaker, he has never scored 20 goals in a season—ever. Can he be the kind of prime-time first-line center that goes to the dirty areas to make plays? Will he back off?
Connolly at his historical best can help the Leafs a lot, but the Connolly of the recent past is much less worth the significant investment the Leafs have made. Yes, it’s only a two-year contract, but it is a two-year contract at big money for a guy, on paper, who may not be worth that much.
And again, the spectre of injury is there. It's not hysteria to raise the issue as a serious one. Yes, the injury issue is there with all NHL players, especially the way the game is played nowadays. But in Connolly, the Leafs are betting on a player with talent, but a history of devastating injuries and not someone known for his grit. Considering Grabbo was the best centre on the team last season, and while he played hard he is not a physical force. Can we really say the Leafs are “strong” up the middle”. (And what happens if Connolly or Grabbo miss time—where is our depth up the middle?)
I just look at the teams who are successful, and it’s not just about size, of course. But you do have to be able to take punishment and thrive at the centre ice position.
Getting to the playoffs may be one thing. But do we have the personnel that will handle the grind that is required to get deep into those playoffs?
On the Maple Leaf forward lines, as of now, I don’t think we’re even close.