TORONTO - Nashville Predators GM David Poile admits it didn’t feel very good having to make the trade that sent Matt Lombardi to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Lombardi knows the feeling as he spent an entire year dealing with the unsettling symptoms that come with concussions.
However, after one full year wondering if his career would ever get back on track, the former Flames speedster became the NHL’s feel-good story of opening night when he kicked off the Leafs season with what stood up as the game-winning goal.
So shocked to see the puck hit the twine, the 29-year-old admitted afterwards he wasn’t even sure how to react, leading to what he called “the worst celebration of all-time.”
A father of two young girls playing on his fourth NHL team, it would be cliché — if not wildly inaccurate — to say he’s come a long way since his days as a promising young Flames prospect.
Fact is injuries have limited his ability to continue growing into the type of top-six offensive threat Flames fans saw glimpses of throughout his four-and-a-half seasons in Calgary.
Even in Toronto, where his opening-night heroics shocked everyone, including coach Ron Wilson, Lombardi is being slotted as a third-line centre at best once the Leafs get top-line pivot Tim Connolly back.
Noticeably skinnier than his days in Calgary, Lombardi knows he needs to add at least 10 pounds to get back to the 195-pound frame the 5-ft-11 pounder is comfortable playing at.
But then, what else could he have expected after going 358 days between games thanks to a Dave Bolland hit in Lombardi’s second game with the Predators last year that left him feeling like his head was constantly being squeezed.
Reading, watching TV and driving made everything worse, eventually costing him an entire NHL season and the Predators US$3.5 million in uninsured salary.
Given his club’s financial restrictions and the need to bump defenceman Shea Weber in pay this summer along with Pekka Rinne and Ryan Suter next year, Poile felt he had no choice but to do what he could to rid his books of Lombardi’s second year at another $3.5 million. To do that, he had to package Lombardi up with coveted prospect Cody Franson to land Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney.
“I had no idea if or when Matthew was able to come back,” said Poile one day after Lombardi’s opening-night heroics. It was a home run for the Maple Leafs.”
The silver lining for Poile is he’ll receive a fourth-round draft pick if Lombardi plays more than 40 games.
And while the affable Lombardi can now finally start looking forward, he was happy to look back at his time in Calgary when asked about his memories.
“Calgary was the only thing I knew in terms of pro hockey, and I had a lot of attachments to the city and the team and the friendships I made,” said Lombardi who was sent to the Phoenix Coyotes late in the 2008-09 NHL season in the deal that brought Olli Jokinen to town.
“When I was traded, it was tough at first, but it was the best thing to happen to me,” Lombardi said. “It was the right time. My experience in Phoenix was just awesome.”
Like most people who’ve played with Jarome Iginla, Lombardi raves about the captain he still stays in touch with.
“Iggy helped me a lot through my career,” said Lombardi, who also touches base with Alex Tanguay.
“Coming in and being young and turning into a pro. The way he trains and everything he does — I just looked up to him and his whole philosophy. I talk to other guys all the time and say, ‘Jarome does this,’ and they say, ‘Oh no, not another Iggy story.’”
Given all Lombardi’s been through, he needn’t apologize for rehashing fond memories.
After all, for the better part of a year, they were the ones he clinged to with hopes of adding more.
Like opening night.
Eric Francis appears regularly as a panellist on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada