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Connolly And Kessel’s Balloon

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

In his fantastic documentary ‘Baseball’, Ken Burns stumbled across Buck O’Neil, a great ballplayer and a greater man locked out of the major leagues by his pigmentation.

"You came around at the wrong time,” people would say. But Buck knew Cab Calloway and Satchel Paige and had seen most everything a man could see.

“Nope,” he would answer. “I was right on time.”

There is a little something of arriving right on time in the story of Tim Connolly who will take his first meaningful stride with the Maple Leafs, Thursday in New York after losing eight games to an upper body injury. Ron Wilson said so in his post-game interview Monday.

Connolly finds the Leafs sitting on a handsome 5-2-1 record. He has missed plenty: a superb start from Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, Matt Lombardi’s early return to the lineup, more solid work from James Reimer and the startling talent and poise displayed by rookie defenceman Jake Gardiner.

In the words of the great television pitchman Ron Popeil, “but wait there’s more. “ I say great because anyone who invents the Vega-Matic and then coins the phrase “slices a tomato so thin, it only has one side,” has a place in the Ulmer Hall of Fame. But I digress.

Connolly has missed the arrival of David Steckel, the Pharoah of the Face Off, Diety of the Dot and Sultan of the Circle.

Kessel’s league-leading nine goals and 15 points are all the more impressive when you consider the succession of centremen Wilson has dropped onto his line: Lombardi, Steckel, Tyler Bozak and for a short time in Philly, Nazem Kadri. That Kessel is so hot right now.

Bozak has been the best of the bunch but if the first 10 per cent of the campaign proves anything, it’s that despite some substantial help from Joffrey Lupul, Kessel is thriving because of the soundness of his 200-foot-game, not because he is the recipient of room-service saucer passes. Okay, that’s good.

The question of whether the Grabovski line or the reunited Connolly line is the go-too unit has been rendered moot by the middling play of Grabovski’s wingers Nikolai Kulemin (two goals) and Clarke MacArthur (none). The chemistry between the three was jolted by MacArthur’s two-game suspension and it has yet to be rekindled. The penalty killing and power play units have been stabilized but neither is in the top 10.

Connolly has been skating since September 29. He stepped on a stick in practice and slammed into the end boards. It was a fluke injury and Connolly, perhaps to the annoyance of Wilson, has taken his time, presumably to return to the lineup at 100 per cent. It has also opened Connolly up to online critics (are there any other kind?) who point to 85 games lost to injury over the last four years as evidence of an inherent, irreparable fragility.

Don’t know about his Buffalo days but can’t see much wrong in a guy wanting to be sound before initiating his season. I think I’ll wait to see how he faces the same level of injury in March before making up my mind.

The Leafs could use some stability on their lines. They need to make up their mind on who they like on the third unit, Lombardi or Bozak who will also be back against the Rangers.

If Bozak is the third-line guy, they will be obliged to shift Lombardi from centre to wing as he continues what will be an arduous road to re-assemble his game. That will last as long as it takes for Colby Armstrong to return from an ankle injury.

Say hello to the Marlies, Nazem Kadri. Kadri has been allotted an average of about 13 minutes of ice time over his three games. That’s not a ton but he hasn’t distinguished himself. It’s just not his time yet.

Connolly’s absence has been papered over by the Leafs quick start. What’s interesting here is that Connolly’s job description has changed over the course of his injury.

The Leafs don’t need Connolly to kick-start Kessel. If anything it will likely be the other way around.

They can certainly use Connolly on the power play but Steckel’s penalty killing work has made Connolly largely redundant when the Leafs are a man down.

Welcome Tim Connolly. Because you were never here, it seems like you’ve never been gone. You will return to surprisingly modest expectations. For now, all you need do is tie a string to Kessel’s balloon.
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