“Uncle” Leo Komarov was an obscure 6th-round draft pick that nobody ever heard of, much less forgot about. Today, he’s very much in the spotlight. The 5’11’’ Estonian forward was drafted nine years ago during the 2006 NHL Entry Draft by much-maligned former Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager John Ferguson Jr. Despite his tenure as the Leafs “straw boss,” Ferguson is still widely respected for his ability to identify talent, and went on to enjoy a successful career as an NHL scout in San Jose and Boston following his days in Toronto.
Other Ferguson picks from this particular year included Jiri Tlusty (13th), Nikolai Kulemin (44th), James Reimer (99th) and Viktor Stalberg (161st), all of whom are still active in the NHL.
Back to Uncle Leo…
After the 2011-12 season, former GM Brian Burke and his staff uncovered this hidden hockey gem, who made an immediate impact with his “all-in” approach. Komarov was signed to a one-year, $1.2 million deal and proceeded to drive the opposition bananas all around the league during the truncated 2012-13 season, with 176 hits in just 42 contests. Add another 22 hits in seven playoff games.
Throwing his weight around and agitating opponents became Komarov’s calling card and to say Leaf Nation was disappointed that Burke’s successor Dave Nonis was not immediately able to come to terms with one of the few bright lights after a gut wrenching exit from the post season would be an understatement.
Komarov would spend the 2013-14 season with Dynamo Moscow of the KHL, finishing the year with 34 points (12 goals, 22 assists) in 52 games before finding himself once again on the Leafs roster for the 2014-15 season, finishing the campaign with a modest eight goals and 18 assists in 62 games. His point totals hardly tell the story, however. Across those 62 games, Komarov threw a whopping 250 hits. He also blocked 25 shots and accounted for an impressive 51 takeaways.
Fast-forward to December 21, 2015.
While the agitating and the hits have not suffered, number 47 for the Leafs currently leads the team in goals with 15. He’s on pace for a career best in goals, points, shots, hits, and takeaways. In 32 games this season, he’s whalloped the opposition 147 times and fired 64 shots, averaging two shots per game.
Clearly, playing for coach Mike Babcock works for the multi-lingual, multi-talented Maple Leaf. Babcock has complete confidence in the little fire-starter, entrusting him regularly with first-line assignments, regular powerplay minutes, and time on the penalty kill.
“[…] He’s a man, he comes to work every day and he competes real hard… plays physical, doesn’t take penalties… when you think of our team and you say who’s the most competitive guy on the Maple Leafs, you say Leo,” Babcock said Monday morning.
Tough to argue when the guy he replaced on the top line (Phil Kessel) has fewer goals despite taking 40 more shots, and fewer points with more ice-time and better line mates.
Now, that’s not to say that Komarov, on the heels of back-to-back two-goal games, is a better hockey player than Kessel; it is simply an exercise in illuminating Komarov’s effectiveness on a team that was supposed to be hurting for goal production. To date, Komarov is tied with Edmonton Oilers winger Taylor Hall in NHL scoring at 10th overall, and is 4th overall across the league in hits.
In terms of compete level, impact on teammates and ability to play a two-way game, it’s a no-brainer; Komarov is without question a far more complete player than Kessel, however, Kessel’s perceived value as a sniper is considerably greater. For now.
What this means for Babcock is that he has identified the perfect poster child for his hard-work-equals-rewards philosophy, and that message will not be lost on the next wave of hopefuls looking to make their presence felt.
Who among us had Komarov pegged for a top-line winger 32 games into the 2015-16 season? Maybe a handful of games to send a message to the Joffrey Lupuls, the Michael Grabners and the like, but a dyed-in-the-wool, bottom-six energy guy thriving alongside the likes of James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri was anything but expected.
Predictably, Leaf Nation has already begun to ponder en masse as to what the return for Komarov might look like: Could he fetch a first rounder in a trade? How about a decent prospect?
While nobody can be considered untouchable, the temptation to recycle every single asset of value has to be resisted if the Leafs are to become anything like the model of stability that coach Babcock left behind to take on the challenge of turning the Leafs franchise into a team worthy of the legacy it has become completely detached from over the years.
The day will come when Leo Komarov will out-live his usefulness, and perhaps a trade will make sense. Maybe that day comes a year from now, but his value to the Leafs is in being a leader on the ice and in the dressing room, showing that will is every bit as important as skill.