When Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke pulled the trigger on a deal with the Nashville Predators on July 3rd, 2011, that saw forgettable players Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney leave town in exchange for promising defenseman Cody Franson and the concussed Matthew Lombardi, few were optimistic of Lombardi lacing up his skates for the Blue and White anytime soon.
Sidelined with a severe concussion after playing only 2 games with Nashville in the 2009-10 season, Lombardi was deemed to be damaged goods upon his arrival to Toronto. With Franson seemingly being the main target of Burke, Lombardi was thrown in as a salary-dump, as his annual $3.5 million salary was too much for the cash-strapped Nashville franchise. Franson was made expendable due to the depth of the Nashville blue-line, and the opportunity to get Lombardi’s salary off the books made the deal enticing for Nashville’s GM David Poile.
By an absolute stroke of luck, Lombardi began to make immense strides in his recovery in the days immediately after the trade. He began on-ice workouts late in the summer and was cleared for contact practice during training camp.
Rumours began to surface that Lombardi might be pencilled into the lineup for an exhibition game or two, with the possibility that he would be in the opening night lineup on October 6th against the Montreal Canadiens.
With speculation turning into reality after Thursday night's home opener, Lombardi made a dazzling debut, using his incredible speed to make the Canadiens defenders look like pylons, as he buried a short-handed goal in the second period, scoring the Leafs' first goal of the season.
Having a healthy Lombardi in the lineup adds much needed depth to the Toronto roster. Lombardi brings a diverse skill-set to the Leafs, as he can kill penalties along with manning the power play. His 53-point campaign with Phoenix in 2008-09 is a clear indication that Lombardi can contribute offensively, a welcome addition to a goal-starved club like Toronto.
Burke has made out like an absolute bandit in this trade.
His shrewd transactions of the past season have netted promising prospects Jake Gardiner and Joe Colborne into the system, but the Franson/Lombardi acquisition, without question, tops the shrewdness list. With Franson, the Leafs add more mobility and size in what is shaping up to be one of the league's deepest blue-lines. And Lombardi, as mentioned, adds more depth to the centre position.
What Nashville received from Toronto in exchange for Franson and Lombardi makes this trade a clear victory for the Leafs and an absolute embarrassment for the Predators. Robert Slaney will be a perennial depth player in the minors for his career, while Brett Lebda was hands down the worst Leaf on the roster last year.
The "highlight" of Lebda’s short tenure with the Leafs was during a 9-3 victory against the Atlanta Thrashers. Defying the laws of physics, Lebda was somehow on the ice for all three of Atlanta’s goals and none of the Leafs goals. Finishing a minus-three when your team scores nine goals is a testament to Lebda’s inability to play the game of hockey. Good riddance, Brett, we hoped the door hit you on your way out.
Burke's acquisition of Lombardi and Franson has proved why he is one of the league's most intuitive general managers. Burke is always looking to make the big move, and he always manages to pull a rabbit out of the hat with his transactions.
Essentially getting the injured Lombardi for free from Nashville was one thing. But now we hope that he can stay healthy all year and contribute for a full season. Lombardi’s successful debut last night makes Burke’s task of getting the Leafs to the playoffs that much easier. With a six-season absence from hockey’s greatest tournament, the clock is ticking extra loud for Mr Burke this season.