The Toronto Maple Leafs entered the 2011 off-season the same way they entered the 2010-2011 regular season; the team did not have a legitimate top-six centre to play with Phil Kessel. While Tim Connolly probably won’t be the long-term answer that fans are still searching for, he is certainly an improvement over the likes of Mikhail Grabovski and Tyler Bozak. That is, of course, if he can remain healthy.
Health has been a huge problem for Connolly over his career. His most recent injury came during the 2011 playoffs; a concussion that many people are still concerned about. Some are wondering if it’s going to affect his ability to play, possibly even keep him out of the first portion of the regular season.
But let’s assume he’s fine and that he plays a full season. Not necessarily all 82 games, but at least 75. If he can reach that mark, will he be able to produce 65+ points, or help Kessel reach the 40-goal plateau that many expected him to achieve last season? Well, let’s take a look at some of the possible lines that Connolly could find himself playing on come September.
Remember, all totals are assuming Connolly plays in at least 75 games; lines are subject to change during the season.
Option No. 1: Nikolai Kulemin – Tim Connolly – Phil Kessel
This seems like the most likely combination heading into the season. Kulemin reached 30 goals during the 2010-2011 campaign, which didn’t come as a surprise to many based on his recent development.
Meanwhile, Kessel was able to net 30 for a third straight season. This was as somewhat of a disappointment, as his previous career production suggested that he might reach 40 goals. However, the 23-year-old still did not have a legitimate play maker to play with, and that clearly hurt him.
Playing on this line, Kessel should be able to reach 40 and Kulemin 35, unless we’re in for a surprise. As for Connolly himself, he could score as many as 60 points.
Option No. 2: Clarke MacArthur – Tim Connolly – Phil Kessel
This line obviously depends on if MacArthur ends up re-signing with the Leafs or not, but if he does, Connolly and Kessel are two forwards that he could find himself skating with. MacArthur, 26, had a career year last year. He scored 21 goals, and could easily top that amount next season if he is playing with a play maker of Connolly’s ilk.
A MacArthur – Connolly – Kessel trio would give the Leafs a line of point producers, but also a line that is composed entirely of players with the ability to ignite a team.
Assuming last season wasn’t a fluke, MacArthur could reach 25 goals, while Kessel could score 35-40 goals and Connolly could put up at least 55 points.
Option No. 3: Clarke MacArthur – Tim Connolly – Joffrey Lupul
This line would be more of a plan B or C. It would likely be the Leafs’ second line, with Kulemin, Grabovski and Kessel making up the top line.
Lupul had a strong finish to last season, and wrapped up the year with 14 goals and 17 assists in 54 games. The Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta native appears to have put his injury problems behind him, and is ready for a larger role. Playing with MacArthur and Connolly, Lupul would likely score 20-25 goals, making him the prominent scorer he used to be.
Connolly would likely see the least amount of production on this line compared to other options. You could expect him to put up anywhere from 50 to 55 points.
Option N0. 4: Nikolai Kulemin – Tim Connolly – Joffrey Lupul
As mentioned earlier, Kulemin could reach 35 goals if placed with Tim Connolly. Lupul has the potential to reach 20 goals no matter what next season, and could see that amount improve if playing alongside Connolly.
This line would give the Leafs a good combination of players who can pass, have a tremendous shot and are not afraid to drive the net.
While a Kulemin – Connolly – Lupul line might not seem very attractive at first glance, it could result in the former Islander and Sabre scoring 55 points.
Remember Leaf fans, Connolly certainly is not a “savior,” and he is not the top-line centre that the Maple Leafs have been trying to find for years. However, he definitely has the ability to improve this team, as long as he can play a full season.