For the first time this season, the Toronto Maple Leafs should have all of their key players together and healthy come Thursday night at the grand reopening of the reconfigured Madison Square Garden.
And that means general manager Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson will have a couple of tough calls to make.
Entering the lineup for the first time is expected to be oft-injured centre Tim Connolly, the team’s only notable free agent signing last summer and the designated Phil Kessel setup man, who has missed the season’s first eight games with an undisclosed upper-body injury.
Connolly has been taking contact in practice since Sunday in Philadelphia and what was originally termed a day-to-day injury – despite putting him out for weeks – will now literally be only a matter of days.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Connolly said. “The guys are doing a great job out there [winning games] Games have been pretty fun for me to watch and I’m looking forward to getting back out there with them.”
“[He’s]closer every day,” Burke said of Connolly’s long-awaited return to health. “We won’t know definitively until Thursday.”
The same goes for the team’s No. 1 netminder, James Reimer, (neck) and centre Tyler Bozak (foot), as both are considered very likely to play against the Rangers after missing most of the past two games.
Only Connolly isn’t currently on the Leafs 23-man roster, although all of the healthy bodies will mean at least two players are headed to the Toronto Marlies before Thursday.
One demotion is easy, as goalie Ben Scrivens will go back after filling in as the Leafs emergency backup in Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
The second, however, isn’t nearly as clear, other than it will be a forward given the overload Toronto has there. Because he can go down to the minors without requiring waivers, youngster Nazem Kadri should be the leading candidate after a quiet three-game stint with the big club.
After that, it’ll fall to Wilson to find a way to work Connolly into the mix – something complicated by the fact that (a) the coach will suddenly have six natural centres to account for and (b) Kessel’s line has been terrific without Connolly on it.
Does he break up what’s been one of the higher-scoring trios in the league to give the new guy some early confidence?
Or break him in slowly on a less potent third or fourth line?
Kessel and Joffrey Lupul have mostly been centred by Bozak, and both wingers are on pace for career years after eight games. Kessel has a league-leading nine goals and 15 points while Lupul has four goals and nine points to put them 1-2 in team scoring.
How much of that has been Bozak is debatable, but what is clear is Kessel is enjoying playing with his close friend and they’ve had plenty of success after struggling together most of last season.
Whatever the decision, the Leafs’ depth down the middle is about to improve significantly over what it’s been in the past two games. Even if Wilson shifts Matt Lombardi and David Steckel to the wing, he’ll be able to use them down the middle while killing penalties – a luxury of options the Leafs weren’t close to having a year ago.
Connolly or Bozak, meanwhile, should add more offence to a third line that hasn’t been finding the back of the net nearly enough in the early going.
Toronto may be off to a 5-2-1 start, but with Connolly in the mix, everyone will only now get a closer look at the team Burke put together in the off-season – one that’s missing only checker Colby Armstrong to injury.
Getting a win against the 3-2-2 Rangers would mean the Leafs close their four-game trip a respectable 2-2. A loss, however, and their record will have flattened out a little after a somewhat deceptive 3-0 start.
Either way, Thursday should be a good indication of what this team is made of, especially considering its last appearance on Broadway was an embarrassing 7-0 loss – and four-goal night for Marian Gaborik – back in January.