Connolly upgrades Leafs

Tim Connolly skates prior to a game against the Panthers in Sunrise, Fla., Dec. 17, 2010. (JOEL...

Tim Connolly skates prior to a game against the Panthers in Sunrise, Fla., Dec. 17, 2010. (JOEL AUERBACH/Getty Images/AFP)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:40 PM ET

TORONTO - Tim Connolly is a New York Yankees fan, which will immediately endear the newest Maple Leaf to his coach, Ron Wilson.

Toronto’s probable first-line centre, acquired Saturday as the prime consolation prize to losing out on the Brad Richards sweepstakes, also said he can’t wait for the chance to get Phil Kessel the puck.

But most of all, the at-times beleaguered former Sabre is looking forward to a fresh start at the other end of the QEW.

“This is the most excited I’ve been for a season in a long time,” Connolly said on a conference call with Toronto media while he was vacationing in Turks and Caicos.

“I had a great time in Buffalo but (with the new ownership) they wanted to start fresh. It’s an opportunity for me to start fresh as well. When I first got the text from my agent that I was going to be a Maple Leaf, I was pretty pumped.?

Once Richards gave his blessing to the New York Rangers, the Leafs moved swiftly to lock up Connolly. In keeping with the wildly bullish market, Toronto will be on the hook for an inflated $9.5 million over two years, but at least the term isn’t crippling.

In the end, general manager Brian Burke realized he couldn’t go into training camp without an improvement at centre, even if it is one who comes with risks attached.

“In terms of pure skill, there were not many players available (on July 1) that can do what Tim does,” Leafs senior vice-president of hockey operations told the Sun’s Lance Hornby.

“This deal is not a long one. He wanted to prove he is still a top centre and if he can play a significant amount of games (it will work).?

It will work especially well if Connolly is able to seize the top-line role, potentially on a unit with Kessel and Joffrey Lupul cruising the wings.

“I’ve usually been able to find chemistry with guys who are that type of player,? Connolly said, when asked specifically about Kessel. “If I’m playing with him, my job is going to be get it to him often and try to get it to him in a scoring position.?

The big question mark surrounding Connolly, obviously, has been his health. The 30-year-old former first-round pick of the New York Islanders (fifth overall in 1999) has compiled a laundry list of injuries including two serious concussions.

That history likely weighed into the short term the Leafs sought, but it was a gamble they felt was worth taking.

“A lot of those (injuries) were freakish, but they have been a focal point,” Nonis said. “He had two significant injuries, getting his head knocked into the dasher and blocking a shot (which broke his foot). Those are hockey-related injuries.

“You know, we made a significant offer to Richards who was coming off a concussion and no one mentioned that. Other than those two injuries, Tim has been relatively healthy.?

Since the lockout, Connolly has topped 70 games in a season just once, though that 2009-10 campaign resulted in 65 points. When he is on, he brings some speed and a playmaker’s touch that the Leafs are in desperate need for up the middle. As for his health, Connolly says he’s in top shape.

“I’m healthy right now, I was training in Buffalo all the way up to the morning of free agency,? Connolly said. “I feel great. I’ve been able to train hard.

“The way I play now, it’s a more complete game (in which) I can be out there for the last minute of the game when we are up by a goal or down by goal.?

Obviously, the Leafs would prefer an upgrade on Connolly’s modest output last season in which he had 13 goals and 29 assists in 68 games. If he can hold down a job with Kessel and Lupul, it wouldn’t be such a tall order to reach.

Meanwhile, the Leafs will continue to eye other possible unrestricted free agents while waiting for the trade market to heat up once the frenzy of free agency settles.

“We still have a few things in the fire,” Nonis said. “We’ve talked to a number of general managers about moving assets but I think you’re going to see the market solidify.”


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