Heading into the season, there was plenty of room for speculation over where Leo Komarov
would fit into the Leafs' plans this season.
Komarov is not what comes to mind when you envision a Mike Babcock type of player. As a winger known for his hard checking and ability to agitate opponents, he can seem like a throwback of sorts to a different era. However, Komarov has found a home for himself on the Leafs top line early in the season. Thus far he has capitalized on the opportunity, with and without from the puck.
Babcock has used Komarov in a role we have seen him subtly deploy in his past with the Red Wings. Alongside heralded players like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have always been lesser celebrated, but equally effective names like Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm. To have the puck, you often have to go get it. That's where Komarov has come in for his head coach, filling a role defined by his previous club.
The opportunity to play alongside high end offensive talent isn't new to Komarov. Prior to making his NHL debut with the Maple Leafs in 2013, he suited up for the KHL's Moscow Dynamo. That season put him on a line with Washington Capitals stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom where he played a similar role.
Check hard, get to the corners, get the puck to the big guns and let them go to work while you get to the front of the net. All in a day's work.
"I never complain about my ice time. It's nice to play in the NHL and I think I'm pretty easy to handle. He can put me anywhere he wants and I'm just going to try to work 100 per cent every day," said Komarov. "I'm maybe not a skillful player but I'm just trying to get the puck out of there and that's part of my job."
The addition of Komarov to the line of Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk has paid dividends for the latter two. Komarov's forechecking and puck retrieval has provided an edge to the line. As a result, he has generated more offensive opportunity for the trio. Kadri and van Riemsdyk lead the Leafs in shots and rank among the League's best in the category.
As we all know, you can't score if you don't shoot and Komarov is affording them more opportunity to do so. That's also to say nothing of the headaches he has caused for opposing defenders trying to make plays out of their zone. Extra seconds of hesitation and second thoughts of going into corners lead to mistakes. In the NHL, those mistakes turn into goals.
"I think everybody is working hard and we're going to get the goals we need," said Komarov.
It may not be glamorous work, but it has to be done. Every winning club can point to a player they rely on to fill that role for them at some point. Komarov's efforts have earned praise from his coach for his play to this point in the season, listing him among the team's best in the early going.
"I think he's been real good. He's been heavy on the puck, he competes real hard, he gets it back. He can take more time in the scoring area, which I think he will but I've liked him a lot," said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. "He's been a very important guy for us and one of our better guys."
Komarov's play is encouraging given his injury struggles throughout the 2014-15 season. He missed 20 games last season due to a combination of a concussion sustained in late November and an upper body injury picked up in January. A strong showing at the 2015 World Hockey Championships was a positive sign -- he had a pair of goals and three points in seven games. He built on that positive momentum with a good summer of training.
So far he feels good, despite being wary of the risk that comes with his brand of hockey.
"I had a good summer and obviously last year I had a lot of injuries but with this style of hockey I'm playing I'm ready for it too. It didn't come as a surprise that I could get injured," said Komarov. "I had a good summer and I feel good right now."
With the amount of turnover over the past couple of seasons -- including his own departure for Moscow and return to Toronto -- Komarov finds himself among the more tenured players on the roster. He surpassed the 100 NHL game played plateau last season, all of which have been played with the Maple Leafs. Moving forward he will be counted on as a veteran player to do things "the right way" for the club and its coaching staff.
His impression of the transition in both personnel and staff have been nothing but positive as the club looks to build into the future.
"It's been positive, it's really good. It's going to take time too with all the pieces. We're going to be a really good team," said Komarov. "Mike brought a lot to this team and it's fun to be here."