If we are to believe Brian Burke and a recent report from the Toronto Sun, Matthew Lombardi fully intends to participate in the Leafs’ training camp in a few weeks and compete for a roster spot. Whether or not you truly believe that’s gonna happen is a different matter. But lets assume for a second that the report is accurate and Lombardi, originally brought in as a salary dump, can actually contribute. Where does that leave Tyler Bozak, to say nothing of youngsters like Matt Frattin and Nazem Kadri who may already have little more than outside shots to make the club?
To start, let’s look at what Lombardi, if he can play healthy, brings to the table. Drafted in 2002, he played mostly in a bottom-six role for the first 4 1/2 seasons of his career in Calgary, a role he fit perfectly with his combination of solid two-way play and penalty killing, lethal speed and strength in the faceoff circle. At the 2009 trade deadline, he was the centerpiece of the deal that sent veteran scorer Olli Jokinen to Calgary, and he was pressed into more of a top-six role with the defensive minded Coyotes. In 2009-10, he had the best season of his career, netting 19 goals and 53 points, earning himself a two-year deal with Nashville in the process. It was in Nashville that he suffered the serious concussion that rendered him apparently useless to the cash-strapped Predators, and cost him the whole 2010-11 season.
Registered at 6’0, 198 lbs, Lombardi’s not a tiny player, but he’s certainly not among the NHL’s biggest guys. That fact has contributed to the fact that he’s suffered a number of injuries that have cost him significant time over the course of his 7-year career. He suffered a head injury in the playoffs during the Flames’ run to the Cup in 2004, missing both the Conference and Stanley Cup Finals. In 2005-06, he missed 24 games with a sprained ankle, and another 13 in 2008 with the ubiquitous “upper body injury.” Neither of those is as troublesome as the concussion he suffered last season, but it’s really a shame how much time the 29 year old has already missed in his not-so-young career.
When he does play, though, Lombardi is a valuable asset. During his full season in Phoenix, Lombardi was a 49.7% faceoff winner – not fantastic, but enough to rank him among the more respected full-time centers in the league (higher than names like Henrik Zetterberg, Dave Bolland, Henrik Sedin). To put that in perspective, of the Leafs’ full-time centers last season, only Bozak and Tim Brent were above the 50% mark in faceoff percentage.
His speed and soft hands make him an attractive asset, especially when combined with his innate defensive skills. Assuming Tim Connolly and Mikhail Grabovski have the top two pivot roles locked up, Lombardi’s presence would add a greater element of shutdown capability to the Leafs’ 3rd unit, while also upgrading the potential for offense. Forgetting even strength for a second, the atrocity commonly known as the Leafs’ penalty kill would also greatly benefit from Lombardi’s services, as his expertise on the penalty kill has been noted by numerous analysts.
The most obvious victim of Lombardi’s unexpected return would be Tyler Bozak – currently the favorite for the 3rd line center role. The two are actually very similar players, with Lombardi offering more proven point production and a longer history of success in the NHL (when healthy, if i haven’t used that phrase enough). However, Lombardi has played left wing in the past, and a line with him, Bozak and Colby Armstrong would be a pretty solid defensive unit while still offering plenty of offensive pop. At the same time, such a line combination would all but damn Kadri and Frattin to the Marlies again, at least until an injury or someone’s poor play warranted a call-up.
Of course, this is all unwarranted speculation and entirely meaningless if he is unable to fully recover, but should Burke’s statement that any discomfort Lombardi is still suffering from is “not concussion-related,” then BB pulled off one of the biggest steals of the summer when he landed a potential 50-point player and a young stud blueliner. Where Lombardi would fit will obviously be determined down the road, but if he truly is healthy, it would give the Leafs an overabundance of depth, not only down the middle but across their whole forward contingent as a group. It would be foolish to assume that no one will get injured over the course of an 82-game NHL season, so having yet another proven NHL player to help balance out the youth on this club can’t be a bad thing.