Leo Komarov isn’t breaking out, the Leafs are finally buying in

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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports

A lot is being made of Leo Komarov’s “coming out party” of late. The 28-year-old Estonian-born Finn has spent the bulk of the season on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top line with Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk. He’s looked stellar in the role. 

Komarov well on his way to setting career highs in goals and points while putting up fantastic underlying numbers. But what’s changed? What is new in Komarov’s game that has made him a better player at such a late age? Komarov may not be the one who’s changed. It might just be his surroundings.

Away From Home

I distinctly remember being in the passenger seat of my dad’s car in the Winter of 2011, waiting for him while he grabbed cigarettes from the gas station. It was a slow news day, and whoever was on the mic at Fan 590 that afternoon brought up the fact that the Leafs were a year or so away from losing Komarov’s rights. It was largely an afterthought to the person, who concluded that a sixth-round pick from five years prior likely had no interest in ever coming across.

At the time, Komarov was in the midst of his second KHL season. Having grown tired of playing for the Lahti Pelicans of the SM-liiga, the KHL offered a bigger challenge as the top league in Europe. This year ended up being Komarov’s breakout as a legitimate young talent. Without any big names on their roster, Dynamo decided to bump the 23-year-old’s minutes up, moving him into a more offensive role that saw him play about 16 and a half minutes a game.

It worked wonders for him. Komarov’s production went up to about a half-point-per-game, good for second among Dynamo skaters in scoring. It helped him earn him a third crack at Finland’s World Championship team. 

At the World Championships, Komarov remained in a more limited role compared to the NHLers and Liiga players, but impressed with strong two-way play and a pair of assists, helping Finland win Gold.

From that moment on, Komarov shed the “just another grinder” role in Europe. Dynamo maintained his minutes in the following season, even as they added the talent necessary to win the Gagarin Cup. He signed with the Leafs shortly afterward, but when he needed a home after the lockout began, Dynamo placed him with NHL mercenary superstars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. When the Leafs made the decision to walk away from him at the end of the season, he was once again a key player on Dynamo’s roster, leading the team in scoring while wearing an A. That year, he represented Finland 29 times, in the European Hockey Tour, World Championships, and Olympic Games. He picked up two medals (Olympic Bronze and World Silver), and was a KHL all-star.

Outside of Toronto, teams have spent years trusting Komarov to take on a major role, and he’s rewarded them all with solid play. Over his KHL career, Komarov has posted 1.94 points per 60 minutes in all situations; the NHL equivalent of about 1.52. In his last two years there (12/13 and 13/14), his NHLe was closer to 1.9; putting him in similar territory with Clarke MacArthur, Brandon Dubinsky, David Backes, and Matt Moulson. 

Much like the “new look Komarov”, the old look Komarov also played on both sides of special teams and was occasionally used to take faceoffs; in fact, he was a full-on centre for much of his rookie season in the KHL, taking 307 draws.

Coach Effects

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For a half decade in the second best hockey league in the world, we’ve seen that Komarov has been used as a scoring forward with a gritty side and two-way ability. That’s thousands of kilometres away though.

Why are we only seeing Komarov used this was in the NHL now, in his third season?

I’d say that assignment makes a major difference here, both in terms of the amount of time he’s received on the ice and what he does with the time once he’s there.

A look at the above chart gives you an indication of Komarov’s ice time over the years, and for the longest time, there wasn’t much of it. It took Randy Carlyle a lot of time to trust Leo beyond a handful of minutes a night, and by the time the Boston series came around, he had slotted Komarov with Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin into a “please remove these guys from my team” shutdown fourth line that played a fraction of the game in stupidly tough situations.

Komarov’s return saw Carlyle lean on him a bit more However, a lack of significant options on the right wing outside of Phil Kessel made that a bit of a no-brainer. Curiously, this was one of the first things that interim coach Peter Horachek put a stop to, favouring the likes of David Booth and Richard Panik and sending Leo into the darkest time of his regular season career in terms of ice time. 

His ice time went back up after management started selling off players, but Horachek saw little use for Komarov on the whole.

A New Hope

Mike Babcock’s vision for Komarov is a much different one than what we’ve seen from the previous regimes. Granted, Leo was never going to beat out Phil Kessel for the top spot on the right wing, but there’s value to a player with Komarov’s physical, annoying style of play.

One of the biggest changes between Carlyle and Babcock (we’re going to basically throw Horachek’s tailspin tenure out the window here), is how the respective Maple Leafs bench bosses have the team move the puck into the opposing zone. Carlyle’s zone exits were the epitome of dump-and-chase; the team would place their wingers at centre ice, the defencemen or pivots would send a stretch pass out to them, and the winger would chip it in. 

Carlyle’s system led to Komarov throwing and taking more hits, as so much of his time would be spent along the boards. It led to more giveaways, both on and off the stat sheet, as he’d often lose the foot races to defencemen who knew what he was going to do. This also ran the risk of icing the puck, leaving the team hemmed in the defensive zone they tried to escape.

The clip above is from a penalty kill on Monday night against Boston. It’s become the norm at even strength and has even trickled its way into the penalty kill when applicable. In fact, all seven of Komarov’s goals have either come from the Leafs starting the shift in the offensive zone and not leaving, or them entering the zone by carrying in the puck. 

It’s of no surprise that a system like this benefits Komarov more. He’s capable enough offensively to move the puck into the zone, though a lot of that work tends to be done by the centres this year (in this case, Nazem Kadri). It allows Komarov to go into board battles with patience rather than feverishly trying to recover what he just lost. It allows him to go to the front of the net. 

Under Babcock, the Leafs have seen their percentage of scoring chances go up, but few have seen a rise as significant as Komarov. Under Carlyle, the Maple Leafs controlled a meagre 43.1 percent of scoring chances when Komarov was on the ice. That number dropped to 40.9 percent under Horachek. It’s now risen to an insane 64.6 percent under Babcock. 

As goes the scoring chance differential, so has gone the high danger chances, the shots on goal, and the shot attempt ratios. A combination of a better system and better linemates have allowed Komarov (and the Maple Leafs) to control play much more effectively this season than they have in the past. 

Needless to say, you’re going to generate more offensive momentum with Kadri being a focal point of your rush than with Jay McClement dumping the puck in for the twentieth time.

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Komarov’s role as the top-lines designated grinder may mean that he’s playing with the puck less overall (as demonstrated by his dropping assist rate and fewer combined giveaways and takeaways). Having Komarov at the net front has  allowed for van Riemsdyk to relinquish the role that he was placed in with Bozak and Kessel and focus on winning battles on the boards and testing defenses out wide with his unique combination of size, speed and skill. 

With two skilled forwards on his line, this means Komarov still manages to get more opportunities to score than he did previously even if he’s carrying the puck less overall. The super pest generating 1.2 additional shot attempts per game, and 78% of his attempts are coming from scoring chance areas (40% high danger). He’s drawing more penalties than he has at any point in his career, causing himself and Kadri to be the best duo at creating power plays in the league, and with all of this considered, he even gets to play on them! It’s new territory for him, at this level.

Summing it Up

It’s weird how the story-du-jour can sometimes drift away from the context that leads to its creation. The idea of Leo Komarov being a loveable misfit that gets a random opportunity of the top and magically runs with it makes for a great story, don’t get me wrong. But it undersells Komarov’s abilities.

The case is one of a player who, throughout his NHL career, put up relatively solid point production in games where he was trusted with top-six ice time, even when the systems didn’t fit him. This case is of a player who, throughout his time in Europe, was played as a skilled forward who could also add the gritty side of the game to his team’s top line, earning him All-Star appearances, international medals, and league trophies. 

We’ve seen the Leafs radically change the way they generate offence from a systematic standpoint this year. Along the way, the team has recognized that Komarov could not only fit into the new direction, but rather become a focal point within it. If you combine his versatile play with his ability to be a mentor for just about any prospect in the organization, both in ability and culturally, it looks like his 4-year, $12 million contract has gone from Dave Nonis’ last long-term albatross to his departing gift.

Leo Komarov has been the player we’ve been hoping he’d become since before he got here. With the support of Mike Babcock, however, he’s finally getting a chance to show it.

  • Jeremy Ian

    Excellent piece. A good reminder that we can miss opportunities when we pigeon-hole players. Oftentimes, they are not as one-dimensional as we think they are just because they have been plugged into roles previously.

    Stir up the situation, and good players will respond and adapt. It takes time and open-mindedness. I’d like to see a bit more of this experimenting with the bottom six; there are some players in that mix that might also start showing their abilities.

  • silentbob

    Babcock is slowly reshaping the leafs into exactly what the redwings were. Komarov is the new Justin Abdelkader…
    Froese is gledening.
    Bozak is Helm.
    Kadri is Datsyuk.
    JVR is Zetterberg.
    Reilly will be Lindstrom.

    The similarities are endless and they keep coming.

  • silentbob

    Finally an article on Komarov. I have been waiting for one of you guys to finally put some attention towards Komarov in an article on here. Nice Breakdown Jeff. Carlyle & Horacek made Komarov look like a shutdown checking line player with limited offensive ability. It’s really amazing how underutilized he was under Carlyle. It’s also amazing the difference having a Very Good Coach can make.