After being stonewalled in the Brad Richards sweepstakes, the Toronto Maple Leafs have turned to an impressive Plan B.
Sunday, that plan resulted in a trade with the Nashville Predators that brought promising young defenseman Cody Franson and speedy center Matthew Lombardi, working his way back from a serious concussion, into the fold while just sacrificing depth defenseman Brett Lebda and minor-leaguer Robert Slaney.
The trade comes one day after Toronto signed Tim Connolly as an unrestricted free agent to be its new No. 1 center.
While it is uncertain where either Franson or Lombardi will specifically fit in on the Maple Leafs, there is little doubt that each could help tremendously.
Franson, the 23-year-old defenseman, is the more prized asset in this trade. He has good size (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and plays with a bit of a physical edge that is quickly becoming the hallmark of GM Brian Burke's team. He was one of the stars on Nashville's blue line in the second round of the playoffs when he helped contain Vancouver's high-powered offense. Franson is also a quality puck mover who had 8 goals and 21 assists last season.
"I take a lot of pride in being able to move the puck quickly to guys and try to get a lot of shots through to the net and give our forwards a lot of chances at rebounds," Franson said Sunday during a conference call. "I haven't had a chance to go into detail with anyone from the Leafs organization. I feel honored to play with any of those guys (on defense). I'm really excited about the opportunity to go in there and play with any of those guys and play a big role on that team. I want to go in there and really produce."
There is a good chance that Franson could develop into a top-four defender on a Toronto blue line that has improved steadily during the past year. But, whatever, his role with the team, he can't wait for the process to begin.
In fact, he says it is a dream come true, despite the fact that he grew up in British Columbia. Thatnks to the influence of his uncle, Chris Franson, the defenseman has been a fan of the Leafs since he can remember.
"I'm excited to be coming to Toronto," he said. "I was a die-hard Leaf fan my whole life. My first baby picture, I'm wearing a Wendel Clark jersey. My whole family is just going nuts right now. This is a dream come true for me and my whole family."
The situation surrounding Lombardi is a bit more difficult to ascertain. He hasn't played since the second game of the 2010-11 season, suffering a major concussion after a head-first collision into the boards. But, Lombardi said that the signs opf improvement are showing more readily now and he is starting to feel confident about his future.
"My health is getting better," Lombardi said. "It's pretty positive that I'm feeling better every week. It's just been a long process, longer than I obviously hoped for. The goal is to be ready for training camp and that is what I am hoping for. We'll take the time I need and go from there."
If the 29-year-old center finds his health, he could be an intriguing addition to the Leafs lineup, especially because of his world-class foot speed.
In his last full NHL season, Lombardi had a career-high 34 assists and a personal-best 53 points, each of which was good for second on the Phoenix Coyotes. He signed the next season as a free-agent with Nashville.
"My role is a speed guy and that is what I'm going to try to bring," Lombardi said. "I couldn't tell you where I fit in, but I'm looking forward to this opportunity. I think it will be a good fit. It's a good young team. I think we are going to be a real good team next year. I just hope I can get back and contribute and be a part of this team winning."
The Predators clearly had high hopes for Lombardi, but those plans were tempered by his injury. As other players developed for Nashville, he became expendable – especially with another two years left on the big-ticket free-agent deal he signed last summer.
"Unfortunately, Matthew Lombardi's concussion last season and recovery left us uncertain about his ability to come back for this season, and that uncertainty has made it difficult for us to move forward, plan and develop our lineup," Nashville GM David Poile said in a statement. "We never like to give up young homegrown talent like Cody Franson, but have to give up something in order to put ourselves in position to do other things to improve our team, which we are committed to doing between now and training camp."
While Lebda and Slaney may both end up as a part of the Predators roster at some point, there is a belief that the deal was made in order to free up roster space and money for moves Nashville hoped to make later in the summer.
The 29-year-old Lebda saw 41 games for the Leafs this past season, registering 4 points. A Stanley Cup champion with Detroit in 2008, Lebda has 72 points (19 goals, 53 assists) and 215 penalty minutes in 367 NHL regular-season games.
Slaney, 22, spent most of the past season with the ECHL's Reading Royals, compiling 24 points and 34 penalty minutes in 61 games. He also appeared in nine contests with the AHL's Toronto Marlies, posting one assist.