After eight seasons in Buffalo, Tim Connolly was ready for a fresh start. The Toronto Maple Leafs provided him with one on Saturday.
Only a few hours after Brad Richards signed a nine-year deal with the New York Rangers, Connolly came to terms on a two-year contract with the Leafs, who were in need of a talented, offensive centerman. The former first-round pick (New York Islanders, 1999) has 395 points (118 goals, 277 assists) in 627 NHL games.
"There were a few other teams interested," Connolly said during a conference call not long after signing the reported $9.5 million deal. "I think (the Leafs) showed interest before the Brad Richards signing. We were able to come to a deal. I think we decided that the Maple Leafs would be the best fit for me with the team they have and the players they have. I think it'll be a nice fit for myself."
Injuries -- mainly concussions -- have been a problem for Connolly during his career, as he hasn't appeared in more than 73 games since the 2002-03 season. But he has managed to stay relatively healthy over the past two seasons and put up a career-best 65 points in 2009-10. He went 13-29-42 in 68 games last season and tallied a pair of assists in six playoff matches.
"I'm healthy right now," Connolly said. "I was training in Buffalo all the way up until the 30th (of June). I had no idea what was going to happen until basically the morning of unrestricted free agency. But I think the way I play now, it's a more complete game -- a more defensive and offensive game where I can be out there in the last minute of a game when you're up by a goal or down by a goal. I think one of my best assets as a player is penalty killing.
"But the way I feel now, I feel great. I've been able to train pretty hard. This is the most excited I've been for a season in a long time. I'm ready to go."
Connolly is excited about the idea of skating alongside Phil Kessel, who has scored 62 goals in two seasons with the Maple Leafs. Given Connolly's abilities as a playmaking center, those numbers could certainly increase.
"I've played against him quite a bit and I've seen him play quite a bit," Connolly said of Kessel. "He's got tremendous speed and tremendous talent and he can shoot the puck and he can score. My job -- if I'm playing with him -- is going to be to get him the puck and get it to him often and try to get it to him in a scoring position."
It's exactly the type of change Connolly was aiming for when the free agency period began on Friday afternoon. While he's sad to leave the place he's played his NHL home games for the last decade, the opportunity to play for an Original Six franchise has him wishing training camp would begin tomorrow.
"I had a great time in Buffalo," Connolly said. "It's a great place to live. The fans are tremendous. They want to start fresh and with the guys they've got, they're going to be a tough team. I think this was an opportunity for me to have a fresh start as well. It's time to move on now. I'm unbelievably excited about it.
"I'm a huge New York Yankees fan. This is what I would compare it to -- getting a chance to play for the Maple Leafs. Just from playing against the Leafs last year, we're going to have a good team. I think there's tremendous upside to this team."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL