Lombardi warms up prior to Thursday's opener

The million dollar question entering this offseason was whether the Leafs can find that elusive No. 1 center.

There was only one option available, Brad Richards and playing with Marian Gaborik was probably more enticing than Phil Kessel, leaving the Leafs with their plan B, Tim Connolly. The injury riddled Sabre came off a 42 point campaign, albeit playing only 68 games. However, that only equates to 0.62 points per game.

Now to put that number in perspective, the Syracuse, New York native tied with Sam Gagner and Frans Nielsen for 133 in the league in that category. Furthermore, Connolly is also one of the most injury prone players in the NHL, only playing 237 out of a possible 328 games in the past four seasons. For Burke and Leafs management to assign him the job of centering the top line is ludicrous.

However, another player the Leafs quietly acquired this off-season could fill that void. As a salary dump by the Predators, Matthew Lombardi may become one of the feel good stories in the NHL if he can get his game back to form. The speedy center had a severe concussion that limited him to 2 games all of last season. Back healthy and ready, Lombardi could surprise.

In 2009-2010, Lombardi’s last healthy season, he posted 19 goals, 34 assists, good for 54 points and lifting an under-talented team: the Coyotes, into the playoffs in the even tighter Western Conference.

Perhaps a greater indicator of Lombardi’s value is that he was awarded a 3 year, $10.5 million contract by the Nashville Predators. The Preds, a budget team, manned by David Poile, gave that contract to Lombardi to nail down the no. 1 center job.

Obviously a concussion filled off-season and playing no meaningful hockey for almost a year could slow him down, Lombardi did not look out-of-place in Thursday’s opener. Furthermore, he showed tremendous speed on a shorthanded break with Mike Brown, not a bad skater in his own right, and roofed a loose puck past a sprawling Price for the inaugural Maple Leafs goal of the 2011-2012 season.

Lombardi’s Goal

Lombo, as he was called by his former Flames teammates, looks to be NHL ready, and although he’s starting on the fourth line with lots of penalty killing opportunities, Lombardi could easily leapfrog Bozak and Duquis, and with Connolly’s injury woes not yet behind him, no one should be surprised if the Montreal native is centering Phil Kessel come November.

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