NHL Free Agency 2011: Toronto Maple Leafs Go with Plan B; Sign Tim Connolly

Jeff LangridgeCorrespondent IIIJuly 2, 2011

PHILADELPHIA - OCTOBER 26: Tim Connolly #19 of the Buffalo Sabres skates against the Philadelphia Flyers on October 26, 2010 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Flyers defeated the Sabres 6-3.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Well, the Toronto Maple Leafs failed in their attempt to woo Brad Richards away from the New York Rangers. So they went to their plan B and signed Tim Connolly to a two-year, $9.5 million dollar contract.

The new deal will pay Connolly $5.5 million in the first year and $4 million in the second year for a cap hit of $4.75 million.

Last season, Connolly recorded 13 goals and 29 assists for 42 points in 68 games. His career best only took place in the 2009-10 season when he posted 17 goals and 48 assists in 73 games.

He was drafted fifth overall by the New York Islanders in the 1999 entry draft. He played two seasons for the Islanders before being traded to the Buffalo Sabres in a trade for Michael Peca. He has played in Buffalo ever since.

While he would not be as good a match with Phil Kessel as Richards would have been, Connolly could end up being a productive player for the Maple Leafs during the two years of his contract. The only problem is that he comes to Toronto carrying a pretty big injury risk.

In his first four seasons, Connolly only missed a total of three games. Since then, he has missed 271 out of a total 574 NHL games. His injuries have ranged from concussions, from which he missed the entire 2003-04 season, to cracked vertebrae to a broken rib.

If he wants to fully earn his new contract, he will have to play a full 82 game season for the first time since the 2001-02 season. That's what Leaf fans will be wanting, but we won't be surprised if he doesn't.

In 627 career games, Connolly has tallied 118 goals and 277 assists for a total of 395 career points.

In the Hockey News assessment of Connolly, his strengths include having "superior quickness, outstanding moves, great hands and tremendous creativity. Excels in one-on-one situations. Can play keep away on the penalty kill as good as anyone." They list his career potential as being a "shifty play-making center, when healthy."

If he can live up to that potential and be the No. 1 center the Leafs have been looking for, he might find a way to stay with the Leafs past his new contract.

Deserved or not, Connolly will be the first line center for the Maple Leafs for the next two years at least. This signing will allow Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne another two seasons of development and they can fight it out on who gets the No.1 spot in the future.

With Kadri and Colborne likely to be the No. 1 and No. 2 centers for the long-term, I would not be surprised to see Mikhail Grabovski dealt at the trade deadline next season, allowing one of them to step into the No. 2 role in the 2012-13 season.

A year after that, Connolly could be re-signed as the No. 3 center and penalty killer. However, I would not be shocked to see Connolly leave after the two seasons. If he wants to remain with the team as it moves toward contention, then he should have no problem taking on that role.

Could Tim Connolly be the No. 1 center the Leafs need? At first glance, his experience says no. I myself did not like this signing when I first heard about it, but if he can prove that he can handle the job and help Kessel get 40 or more goals, than he will be well worth the investment.

Only time will tell.