With the preseason opener just over 3 weeks away, the Leafs’ lineup is far from set in stone. While there are plenty of projections already running around out there, the fact is that there’s actually a decent bit of depth across the Toronto roster, and a strong training camp from any number of players could have a major impact up and down the lineup. That said, I’m going to start at the top, name all the candidates for each position, and decide who I think should get the job, thereby eliminating players as we go down the list. It’ll give me a chance to run down all the players that will be on the team this year, as well. It’s only fitting that we start with the one position that the Leafs haven’t been able to fill since Mats Sundin left.
Candidates: Tim Connolly, Mikhail Grabovski, Matthew Lombardi, Tyler Bozak, Joe Colborne
There’s no question that Tim Connolly is the frontrunner for this job, as he’s shown the ability to be a near point-per-game player, when he’s healthy. Of course, as has been stated over and over by just about every critic of his signing, a healthy Connolly is not exactly a safe bet. His playmaking abilities would make him a great fit with Phil Kessel, finally taking some of the load off his shoulders to create his own offensive openings. In fact, he’s not even that much of a goal-scorer, having never broken the 20-goal plateau, but in the 237 games he’s played in the last four seasons, he’s notched 139 assists, close to a .60 assist-per-game ratio. Consider the fact that those four seasons were spent playing on various lines of the less-than-superb Buffalo Sabres’ offense, with no one even close to the talent level that Kessel brings to the table, and it’s reasonable to expect him to at least achieve similar numbers to what he’s been putting up, if not improve on them.
Should the naysayers be proven accurate and Connolly’s health risks turn out to be trouble. the next likely candidate will be Mikhail Grabovski, unless of course, he, Kulemin and MacArthur are deemed as inseparable as they were last season. If Wilson doesn’t want to break that trio up, and doesn’t want to use Tyler Bozak in a role that he clearly wasn’t fit for last year, Matthew Lombardi could get a great opportunity to rejuvenate his career. His speed and two-way play would add some defensive responsibility to the top line, and would probably fit well with Kessel.
The one who could change all these plans is Joe Colborne. The former first round pick had a great end to the season with the Marlies, scoring 8 goals and 16 points in 20 games. Chances are he starts the year back in the AHL, but I doubt Burke and Wilson would complain if he made them think twice about sending him down because of a strong performance in camp and the preseason. With his size, hands, and nose for the net, he could be a great fit on the top line. I’m not saying he will be the top-line pivot when the season starts, but if he comes into camp in great shape and lights it up, that would be a great problem to have.
Winner: Tim Connolly