Jeff Veillette (Jeffler)
May 14 2014 10:31AM
It's amazing how beloved Leo Komarov became in Toronto in so little time. Despite only playing 49 games and 550 minutes, everybody's favourite Finn/Russian/Estonian who also speaks Swedish and English may have the highest approval rating of any non-core Leafs player in the past couple of years. With a recent development, it looks like he may be coming back sooner than you'd think.
Trying to figure out exactly what's happening is a bit confusing, as all of the reports are in Finnish and slightly contradict with each other. MTV.fi, Iltasanomat.fi, and SuomiKiekko.com all have the story, plus I did a bit of my own independent research (aka, I bugged friend of the Nations Andrey Osadchenko)
Basically, one of the following things has happened:
- Komarov has terminated his contract with Dynamo Moscow a year early
- Komarov's contract with Dynamo Moscow has an NHL-conditional out clause
- Komarov's contract with Dynamo Moscow is actually a 1-year deal with an option for a 2nd, that he's passed on exercising.
There's a lot of variance between those three options, but they all end the same way - Komarov, who is set to become an NHL Unrestricted Free Agent
Komarov had a bit of a coming out party across the pond this year, making the jump from the bottom six to the top six, in an effort to prove himself capable of playing on Team Finland during the Olympics. Without Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to be his lockout-linemates, he had a steeper than prior challenge with Dynamo Moscow, but put up 12 goals and 22 assists in 52 games, leading the team in scoring. He also had 42 penalty minutes, was a +16, and put up 4 points in 7 playoff games.
On top of his KHL success, Komarov represented Finland in three international tournaments this season. He pup up 4 points in 9 games during the European Hockey Tour, en route to a gold medal. He was pointless during the Olympics, but played a very Leafs-era, pest-like game for the Finns as they upset many and took home the bronze. Lastly, he's part of the FInnish team that's currently 1-2 in the World Championships.
Prior to that, Komarov put up 9 points in 42 regular season games for the Leafs, playing a role that involved him hitting, instigating, and playing defensive hockey. Komarov was third amongst Leafs forwards in penalty kill minutes per game (1:48) was their 4th best penalty drawer (1.2 per 60), and lead the team in (the highly subjective stat we call) hits, tallying 176 of them, good for 4th in the league. Overall, he was probably better than David Clarkson was this year.
Is It Possible?
I actually like the Leafs' chances of bringing him back next year. There are some salary cap concerns, but the NHL doesn't seem to have much of a history of giving players substantial raises just because they did well in Europe. Besides, Komarov's departure last year was more about making Team Finland and getting minutes than financial gain.
There's a large group of people who believe that Leo is a big piece of the Leafs' positive identity from last year. I mean, they weren't as good as people give them credit for, riding James Reimer and some good offensive puck luck, but it certainly helped things when teams got distracted by his antics and left some of the Leafs more skilled players to goof around. Not to mention that having a defensively capable, quality skater on the ice rather than a pure enforcer in more situations would probably be beneficial to a team that bleeds out once the puck heads towards their zone.
Fans aren't the only ones who think this. From James Mirtle's interview with the recently-fired assistant coach Scott Gordon:
“Well, the makeup of the team wasn’t that different, but the players who didn’t play for us were a different kind of players. You look at Leo Komarov and his contributions, Mark Fraser and his contributions – he gets hurt and isn’t able to get back to the same level of play – those are two guys off the top of my head. Not just in the game, but how they practised, the tone that they set for our team with that style of play. We missed that.
“They could have been here and the same thing would have happened, but they were just definitely for me guys that competed all the time and when you look at our season, we didn’t compete with the consistency that you need to to be successful.
I'm not a huge fan of using "compete" as a scapegoat, but the reality is that they internally recognize that he was missed this year.
As for whether he'd be interested in returning to the Leafs, I wouldn't be surprised. Komarov referred to playing for the Leafs as the best year of his life. He still refers to himself as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs in his Twitter Bio, promoted #NHL15Kessel, made a point to find some of his former teammates in Sochi, and Dynamo Moscow had to change their policies because he was wearing too much of his old gear. Komarov's agent has stated that the Leafs will get first priority.
If the Leafs are willing to compensate him somewhat fairly, and give him an opportunity to play, they should be the front runners. The only real competition I could see is Washington (if the new GM is in place soon, and if they're comfortable with playing him with Ovechkin and Backstrom), and whoever signs the reported Grabovski/Kulemin package deal.
Lastly, how soon could it get done? Maple Leafs Hot Stove looked into this in March, and while it was impossible to sign Komarov for the close of the regular season, the Leafs are able to take advantage of his remaining RFA status.
I wouldn't be surprised to him test the market for even just a few minutes in July, but Toronto definitely has the leg up in speaking to him. If I had to guess, he'll be getting a call from Leafs management after Finland's time at the World Championship comes to a close.