Is Connolly the answer for the Maple 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: 9:12 PM ET

MILTON, ONT. - Like the Phil Kessel deal or loathe it — and isn’t it about time you get over it if you are in the latter camp? — it really doesn’t matter now.

What does, however, is that the longer the Leafs go without having the other two thirds of a legitimate first line, the more general manager Brian Burke’s acquisition of Kessel seems wasted.

The second anniversary of the trade that so polarized the team’s followers is fast approaching and the Leafs have yet to have a playoff performance to show for it.

But entering season three of the Kessel era, might the team finally have an honest to goodness first line?

We’re about to find out.

With the acquisition of Tim Connolly as a free-agent signee in the off-season, the Leafs get a proven centre that at his best is certainly a candidate for the role. The leap of faith with the former Sabre is that a fresh start will be a jump start to his career after wearing out his welcome in Buffalo.

In Joffrey Lupul, the Leafs have a left winger who is feeling healthier than he has in years and is ready to prove he’s a full season first-liner for the first time in his career.

And in Kessel they have the sniper waiting to maximize his value by being surrounded by linemates that will help him shine.

First to Connolly, a player who certainly was beleaguered during his time in Buffalo. With Brad Richards out of range in the free agent frenzy, Connolly was the next best centre available in Burke’s eyes.

“A player can get stale in a market,” Burke said Tuesday prior to the team’s charity golf tournament at Rattlesnake Point Golf Club. “A player can get buried on a team then go somewhere and find new life and we are counting on that happening with Tim. He’s a real good hockey player and a real competitive hockey player.”

Not that he is the one pulling the trigger on the signing, Leafs coach Ron Wilson has seen enough of Connolly as a division rival to feel he might just have something.

“Fresh start, different team, the fact we believe in him,” Wilson said. “He’s worked really hard his summer, so I’m pretty confident he’s going to give us exactly what we need as a first-line, second-line centre.”

The prospects for Lupul’s play on a top line is an interesting one based on his play late last season. Getting stronger as the season went on, the former Anaheim Duck developed a nice partnership with Kessel. Having missed most of the previous season due to injury and a subsequent infection that knocked him on his rear, Lupul figures to be in much better shape.

With a full summer to train in the pleasant surroundings of his Southern California off-season home, the soon to be 28-year-old is eyeing a breakthrough season.

“That’s what I’ve been thinking all summer,” Lupul said on Tuesday. “It’s been a long time, a couple of years for me, since I’ve felt this good.

“It’s a big relief. Hopefully I can just put this behind me and have a full season where day in and day out I don’t have to worry.”

The natural extension of being healthy and fit would be that Lupul will be able to help the Leafs bolt out of the starting gate with the same confidence they finished last season.

I should have a little more jump and mentally it’s an afterthought not having to worry about how I’m going to feel day-to-day,” said Lupul, who stressed he still needs to earn his spot among the top three in camp. “It was kind of a long haul. Hopefully it’s something that makes you stronger in the end.”

And then there’s Kessel the closer. Heading into his third season as a Leaf, Kessel said Tuesday that he likes the new additions, in particular the guy who he hopes will be the centre he has been waiting for.

“Phil doesn’t really need a guy to set him up, he can score from just about any place on the ice,” Connolly said. “But if I have a chance to play with him, hopefully I’ll find a way to get him the puck.”

In the Leafs’ quest for a legit first line, that would be a start.


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