Original Photo by Steve Russell / Toronto Star. Photo has been manipulated.
Yesterday afternoon, my good friend Jon Steitzer wrote a very good piece about why trading Leafs forward Leo Komarov makes sense. He puts up some interesting, well thought out arguments, and I commend him for the effort he put into it.
Now, Jon and I don’t agree with each other often. Take TLN’s All-Time Team for example. It wasn’t picked quietly, and it wasn’t picked easily, and most of the reasoning for that was because Jon and I were screaming at each other on a minutely basis. If there weren’t several provinces between us and a massive age gap (Jon is three years old), we probably would have literally fought each other. All because we couldn’t decide on which wingers would win the “we can only pick four or five centres” participation ribbons.
Anyway, I don’t disagree with Jon as much on Komarov, but I still think he’s wrong. Leo Komarov should absolutely stay with the Leafs for the foreseeable future.
The fantastic thing is, a lot of my work in this argument has been done for me; Jon brings up a lot of the key points in favour of keeping a player his calibre.
For example, he brings up that Komarov, in a lot of ways, is a prototypical Mike Babcock player. This is very true. Babcock lives for controlling the destiny of the puck; if you’re letting it go, it better be on net. He prefers to move it up with control. He prefers to cycle if there’s a limited chance of making the goalie work. If that chance is there, however, you best believe that the puck has a landing place. Ideally, in the back of the net, but in the case of failure, Babcock’s lines usually have a somewhat skilled net presence, and Komarov, along with James van Riemsdyk, is a major key in that regard.
Komarov exemplifies qualities that make him very capable of all three parts of the process. He’s one of the team’s top shot suppressors; only Richard Panik has been more effective at suppressing attempted shots among Leafs regulars (750+ even strength minutes) since 2012/13 (and he’s been traded). Komarov’s natural puck skills, mostly developed in Europe, allow for him to be a puck carrier when his centre isn’t available to do it.
As for getting to the net, it’s a focal point in Komarov’s game right now; 74% of his attempted shots are considered scoring chances (highest on the team), and his 38% of attempts as high-danger chances only trail Nick Spaling and notorious tap-in legend Tyler Bozak, who has one of the highest shooting percentages in NHL history as a result. This, by the way, is a reason to buy into Komarov having more than just a hot stick; so many of his even-strength shots come from opportune areas, and he’s spending more time on the powerplay. Yes, 18% is a little high, but given the leg-up his opportunities have attached to them this year, a Komarov who plays this style of game regularly is probably better than the one that was a career ~8% shooter prior to this year. His new-found effectiveness on the powerplay and his newfound love for the close areas shouldn’t be held against him.
Going back to the shot suppression point from two paragraphs ago; a closer look at his penalty kill numbers show surprising effectiveness this year. While his shorthanded relative possession numbers are below the curve for the first time this season, he’s been the team’s most effective forward at eliminating shot attempts and has a better ratio of goal performance than his peers, which meshes with him dumping the puck earlier when a man short than the likes of Nazem Kadri and Michael Grabner.
Komarov’s even strength production is relatively consistent with what we saw last year, and what European fans saw when he was playing in the KHL. His total numbers will likely dip as the Leafs add more talent, but the biggest factor in that regard will be whether Babcock feels him to be worthy of playing on the powerplay. As I wrote about a few months back, there’s little reason to believe that this is Komarov’s flare up opportunity; while he could obviously begin to decline soon as veteran players do, his success seems to come from the position he’s put in. Thankfully, Komarov is signed for a very reasonable two and a half more years; his contract is long enough to take advantage of, but not too long to risk him becoming dead weight.
The amazing thing about it, too, is that Komarov might be one of the best players in his contract class. There aren’t a ton of players in the $2.5-4 million range that signed with UFA rights (Komarov makes $2.95), but most of them to put it bluntly, don’t come close to bringing the same productivity and two-way viability that Komarov does. The only power sluggers in his “weight class” include a Conn Smythe winner on a “try to join a winner” discount in Justin Williams, an analytics darling in Benoit Pouliot, noted Sidney Crosby linemate Chris Kunitz, and ageless wonder and all-time legend Jaromir Jagr. There’s a steep dropoff in talent in his price range after that; you begin to get littered with the Derek Dorsett, Joel Ward, and David Joneses of the world.
At this point, we’ve established that Komarov is a player who has been extremely effective this year. He’s clearly outperforming his deal, and there’s a chance he doesn’t keep doing so moving forward. The present success and cost-effective contract should be more than enough to have teams calling for him. So, with all of that considered, why do you pass on doing so?
For one, there is the “intangible” factor that Jon mentioned. Komarov is well liked by his teammates and is seen as a leader in the room. Jon does make the case that Leo isn’t the only veteran in the room, but many of the names he referred to (Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, Daniel Winnik, Matt Hunwick, and all of the expiring contracts) are assets that the Leafs are more actively looking to move in the short term, be it due to players coming up the pipeline behind them (Bozak), a decline in contribution that is unlikely to significantly rebound (Lupul), or because they were acquired to be fill-in-the-blank type players (everyone else).
I’ve never been a fan of the idea of having a “glue guy” who doesn’t meaningfully contribute to the team on the ice. It’s a romantic concept, but you want players who won’t waste your time when actual games are at stake. In Komarov, they have a player who, on the ice, can at the very least be a secondary core piece as a scoring chance driver at even strength and shot suppressor on the penalty kill; and he also happens to be the glue guy. It’s a double whammy that’s hard to say ‘no’ to. He even has a lot of the success that the “winners breed winners” mindset people love, with international medals and KHL rings.
We also joke a lot about his ability to chirp in four languages (English, Russian, Swedish, and Finnish), but as Jon alludes to, that also means that this veteran presence can be a normal human being in all of them as well. If he plays a style of game that the coaching staff likes, is a role model in the way that management likes, and is an everyday person in a way that the players like, wouldn’t that make him the perfect mentor for the next wave that comes in? Yes, Brendan Leipsic and Nikita Soshnikov could one day replace the things that he brings to the table; but shouldn’t they learn from him along the way?
Another thing to consider is the fact that the Leafs could see a quick and dirty jolt up the standings next year if the right chips fall into place. William Nylander and Mitch Marner are likely graduates to the team next year; NHLe pegs them both as 50+ point impacts under regular minutes based on this year’s play in the AHL and OHL. Nikita Zaitsev is likely signing at the end of the KHL season, and he projects to immediately be at least a second-pairing defenceman in the NHL (and is a Russian for Komarov to show the ropes). There’s also that Steven guy from the State of Florida that everybody keeps speculating about…
This is not to say the Leafs are a lock to be automatic competitors. Far from it. But there’s a chance that if you trade him now, you’re looking for another net-crashing, play driving, shot suppressing, team rallying local hero to add to your team.
Given the current going rate for non-project players at free agency, won’t come as cheap dollar wise. That’s the other thing; teams know that they can’t just sign even 75% of a Komarov for $3 million today, and it will be even harder soon enough. As salary cap growth begins to stall with a slipping Canadian dollar, teams will salivate even harder for a cost-controlled talent. If the Leafs are still in a selling position next year, a Komarov that’s even somewhat declined likely gets a similar return. If he repeats it? Even better; prepare for war.
At the end of the day, I’m all for selling players for the right price. If a team comes in with high draft picks and blue-chip prospects, it would certainly be hard to say no to moving Leo Komarov, but I would be treating him as a player you accept offers for rather than offer up. Every player has a price, but I really do believe that Komarov is a piece this team should hold onto moving forward.
Finding players that buy into your coach’s system is hard, finding players that thrive in those systems is harder. Finding likable players that can be mentors is hard, finding likable players who can be mentors to multiple nationalities is harder. Finding cost-effective players is hard, finding cost-effective players in prime UFA age with all the qualities that both the old and new-school like in a hockey player, with no terrifying injury history, freak long-term slump, or character issues is harder.
Leo Komarov is literally all of those things. If I’m Leafs management, I don’t give that up easily.