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Maple Leafs take a gamble on centre Tim Connolly

The Toronto Maple Leafs have signed centre Tim Connolly. The Associated Press

David Duprey

When Brad Richards opted for the New York Rangers, the Toronto Maple Leafs elected to roll the dice on Tim Connolly.

As its stands now, Connolly will be the Leafs' No. 1 centre next season, the latest attempt to find someone to get the puck to sniper Phil Kessel. However, Connolly, 30, and his two-year, $9.5-million (all currency U.S.) contract come with substantial risk for the Leafs.

Connolly has put up as much as 65 points in his 10 NHL seasons, mostly with the Buffalo Sabres, but he has not played as many as 80 games in a season since 2002-03 due to numerous injuries, including two major concussions.

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He missed the entire 2003-04 season due to his first concussion and then missed 80 games in 2006-07 with post-concussion syndrome after he was hit during the 2006 Eastern Conference playoffs. Other injuries include a broken vertebra, broken rib and a stress fracture in his leg.

Maple Leafs senior vice-president of player personnel Dave Nonis said Saturday the team is "comfortable with his health" and Connolly will "be given a chance to play in the top six."

That is the down-side of the signing.

On the up-side, the former Sabre is a talented playmaker with soft hands and some speed. He could turn Kessel into the 50-goal scorer the Leafs hope for if he can stay healthy. He had 29 assists in 68 games for the Sabres last season and had 48 in 2009-10 when he played 73 games.

Finally, there were several other teams in the hunt for Connolly, so the Leafs are not the only team that thinks his injury troubles are behind him.

Connolly said he is healthy and is already training hard for next season.

"This is the most excited I've been for a season in a long time," he said.

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Connolly said he compared joining the Maple Leafs to playing for the New York Yankees, which would indicate he has some work to do on studying the championship history of the Leafs.

Nonis and Leafs general manager Brian Burke told Connolly's agent, J.P. Barry of CAA Sports, that if they missed on Richards his client would be their next choice. Connolly, who was not part of the wave of spending by new Sabres owner Terry Pegula, said his preference was the Leafs all along.

"We decided the Maple Leafs would be the best fit for me with the team they have," he said. "I had no idea what was going to happen in Buffalo until the morning of unrestricted free agency."

Connolly described himself as a two-way player, "where I can be out there in last minute whether you're up by a goal or down by a goal."

His big job with the Leafs will be to get the puck to Kessel, though. "He's got tremendous speed, tremedous talent. He can shoot the puck and score. I've usually been able to find chemistry with that kind of player," Connolly said of his new linemate.

Connolly, who was born in Syracuse, N.Y., said he has a family connection with the Greater Toronto Area. His mother is from Hamilton and his 88-year-old grandmother still lives in nearby Burlington. Connolly said his grandmother is "a huge hockey fan."

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He also said he is not bitter about not being part of Pegula's plans for the Sabres.

"[Buffalo]is a great place to play, a great place to live, the fans are tremendous," he said. "If you're not doing well they can be tough on you, but that's part of the deal."

"I played there 10 years almost. It's been a good run but it was time to move."

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