NEW YORK - Now that there is a “when” for Tim Connolly’s debut as a Maple Leaf, the team must prepare to answer the follow-up questions that go with the news.
It is expected the team’s big free-agent acquisition will be in the lineup here on Thursday when the Leafs face the Rangers.
With Tyler Bozak also due back after missing two games with a foot injury, Leafs brass can spend part of their two off days in Manhattan determining how to re-configure the roster.
It has been a solid start to the season, record-wise, to be sure, but the Leafs have lost two of three on this road trip and are ready for a positive jolt to gain a split.
The Leafs were given a full day off Tuesday but will return to practice Wednesday at the rebuilt Madison Square Garden where we may get a hint at the revamped lineup.
A win against the Rangers on Thursday would salvage a split on the road trip, which would be considered a success given injuries to Bozak, Connolly, Colby Armstrong and James Reimer.
The return of Bozak and the belated start to Connolly’s time as a Leaf should help, but who pays the price?
“We have had tough roster calls this year, and this next one won’t be any easier,” Leafs general manager Brian Burke said on Tuesday. “This is a wonderful problem to have. We have some depth that creates issues.”
In Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Flyers, Wilson engaged in some serious line-juggling to make up for some struggles down the middle.
In the third period, for example, Nazem Kadri was playing centre between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul as Wilson tried to jump-start the offence to catch the Flyers.
Matthew Lombardi was one of the team’s biggest early season surprises, but may have been in over his head as the fill-in top centre.
The return of Connolly brings by far the most intrigue and expected impact as the team’s yearning to have a productive force between Kessel and Lupul doesn’t seem as dire as it did prior to the start of the season, but it is still a need.
While it’s true that Kessel has been doing just fine with the mix of men he’s had so far, how much more productive can that unit be if Connolly proves to be the skilled playmaker Burke believes him to be?
It might be a stretch to expect Connolly to have an immediate impact given his longer than expected recovery from a shoulder injury. Remember as well that his limited time with his new linemates in training camp was still very much a work in progress.
“I think Tim will add a great deal to our team, but there is likely a rust factor here,” Burke said. “He has worked extremely hard, so the rust factor shouldn’t be too lengthy, but it will likely be present.”
With Kessel (nine goals, six assists) and Lupul (four goals, five assists) going so strong, perhaps that will take some of the pressure off of Connolly, who came to training camp amid high expectations.
If Connolly can’t handle full front-line minutes off the hop, at least Wilson has options. He can, for example, bring speedy Lombardi up for the occasional shift when necessary.
Connolly, who suffered a shoulder injury when he crashed into the boards during a practice midway through camp, has been with the team on this road trip and Sunday was cleared for contact drills.
As for who comes out of the lineup Thursday, those are the tough calls that await. Before Bozak and Colby Armstrong were hurt, it appeared likely that Nazem Kadri was going to be sent down to the Marlies for conditioning.
While Kadri hasn’t played poorly in his three games, he still tends to get knocked off the puck fairly easily. For book-keeping purposes, Kadri is also one of the easiest players to send down.
Rookie Matt Frattin has yet to score, but he’s been getting his chances and the sense is Wilson would be reluctant to demote him right now.
The other two potential candidates would be Philippe Dupuis and Jay Rosehill. But since Dupuis can also play the wing and has had his strong moments on the penalty kill, he’ll be tough to sit as well.
In the big picture, though, these are the bit players. The long-awaited debut of Connolly will have far more say in whether this team can continue to build on its 5-2-1 start. We’re about to find out if it was worth the wait.
LEAFS NEED TO BEAT TOP TEAMS
The question was met with the famed Dion Phaneuf stare.
When asked following Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Flyers if there was any moral victory from hanging tough against a team expected to do well in the Eastern Conference, Phaneuf paused, then offered this:
“Where are they in the standings?”
It’s clear that the Leafs captain believes his team can be competitive with anyone in the league.
The Leafs can only beat who the schedule-makers put in front of them on any given night, but all five of their wins have come against struggling opponents.
To be legitimate playoff contenders and to build on the 5-2-1 start, the Leafs will need to get points from the better teams.
Heading into Tuesday’s action, the Leafs held a one-point lead over Buffalo in the Northeast Division.