The free agency frenzy was kicked into high gear this weekend, and got some extra attention because there really isn't a lot of other free agency news taking place in other sports. A lot of lockout talk though.
Some teams spent big while others looked at the free agency period as a time to acquire valuable pieces. Toronto was a team looking to spend big, and ended up grabbing a few pieces in the end.
One of those pieces was Center Tim Connolly, formerly of the Buffalo Sabres. Connolly is 30 years old and is considered to be a very strong puck handler. Toronto viewed him as an upgrade to what they had, and signed Connolly to a two-year $9.5 million deal. At a press conference after the signing, Connolly stated that he is a huge New York Yankees fan "and this to me is the hockey version of playing for the Yankees" in reference to the Maple Leafs.
I think Tim has lost his mind.
Connolly may be an upgrade for Toronto, but that's not saying a lot about the Maple Leafs. Connolly has never scored 20 goals in a season. He definitely can pass the puck and shows signs of brilliance, almost as a tease. He also makes mind-numbing mistakes at times and can anger fans with how timid he can be with the puck. Also, Connolly's complete lack of goal-scoring ability in the playoffs drove a likable guy to be hated in Buffalo. The last playoff goal he scored, was his best game ever, in the crazy Game 1 win over Ottawa in 2006. Zero playoff goals since.
None of that includes Connolly's injury history, which has definitely hampered the quickness he once had. Connolly has only played more than 70 games once since 2005. He missed most of the Ottawa series and all of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2006, and was injured in a key part of the series in Game 6 against Philly this year. Connolly has suffered multiple concussions, injuries to his sternum, ribs, hip and probably more that haven't been reported.
The Connolly signing came after Brad Richards, the most sought-after free agent, decided to play with the New York Rangers. To correct Tim on this, the Yankees most of the time sign one of the biggest free agents if they want him. The Maple Leafs signed Tim Connolly and that's it.
The Yankees have missed the playoffs once since the strike left the season without a champion, in 1994. The Maple Leafs haven't made the playoffs since the lockout left the season without a champion, in 2005.
Since 1968, the Yankees have won the World Series seen times appearing in the Series 11 times. Since 1968, the Maple Leafs haven't been to the Stanley Cup Finals once. The only thing they have in common is that they are big-market franchises who wear blue.
Think about what just happened to the marquee Maple Leafs. They lost out on the Brad Richards sweepstakes to the Rangers, a team that may be in the same city and have similar spending habits to the Yankees, but are also a horrible comparison to them. Maple Leaf fans can at least look back and convince themselves that at one point they were like the Yankees, dominating the 1940's. The Rangers have won one Cup since World War II began.
Some fans may trash Brian Burke for being in Afghanistan during the free agency frenzy, but realistically it didn't matter, since Toronto isn't a hot destination for free agents. Plus Burke pulled off an incredibly crafty trade in getting Cody Franson from a desperate-to-shed-payroll Nashville Predators. Matthew Lombardi is far from the prize in that trade, mostly because he's going through a horrible concussion. If the NHL toughens concussion standards, he may never play again.
Trades like the Franson trade are smart, and can help improve a Maple Leafs team that showed signs of life at the end of last year. It's a pretty weird state when the Maple Leafs are acting like a small-market franchise while the Sabres are spending a lot on free agents.
On second thought, the Connolly and Lombardi moves did add a lot of payroll, so they are spending a lot for hopefully some return and a lot of risk. They may have to play in bubbles next year. When free agency comes around, the Maple Leafs aren't players most of the time. They aren't the Yankees at all. They're more like the Padres.
Toronto has made trades before to obtain talent and increase payroll. In 2009, they traded for Phil Kessel and gave up what turned out to be Tyler Seguin, the 19-year-old second-overall pick in the 2010 draft who has already won a Stanley Cup.
To compare the Yankees to the Maple Leafs is like comparing big apples to orange leafs. The last time the Maple Leafs were in the Cup, was before expansion of any kind. Toronto isn't in the same class as the Red Wings or Penguins or even the Ducks. Toronto is in the same class as Winnipeg and Phoenix and Nashville and San Jose and Columbus and Minnesota. Those are the franchises that haven't been to the Finals since 1968. Given that Columbus and Minnesota joined the league in 2000, San Jose in 1991, Nashville in 1998, Now Winnipeg in 1999 and Formerly Winnipeg in 1979, it's not impressive company at all.
The one saving grace for Toronto is that the NHL is on an Original Six kick, with both the Bruins and Blackhawks breaking long droughts in the last two years.
For now, Tim Connolly may want to look at history and see that for a long time now, the Maple Leafs franchise has looked a lot less like the Yankees, and a lot more like the Cubs.
No wonder Toronto hockey fans want the Coyotes to relocate to Toronto. At least Chicago saw a World Series championship recently.
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