Leo Komarov is off to a great start in his second stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The 27 year old Finnish forward was born in Estonia and speaks 5 languages, he can also play classical piano despite having no formal training. While all that is interesting food for thought, the most fascinating thing about Leo Komarov is how he plays the game of hockey. It would not be an easy task to compile a list of players who possess more grit than Komarov. Komarov has put up 9 assists and 1 goal in 15 games so far this season. Although eclipsing his point total from his first NHL season (42 games) after just 15 games is impressive, what this Finnish missile brings to the team extends far beyond offense. He finishes virtually all of his checks, is great defensively and seems to have the character of a great leader.
Corporal Komarov quickly garnered a reputation for being an agitator in his first season with the Leafs, and has continued on that track so far this season. Komarov finishes virtually all of his checks but never puts himself out of defensive position to do so. A sequence which emphasizes the advantages of Komarov’s physical play is:
In the above video Komarov takes Johnny Oduya of the Chicago Blackhawks out of the play with a hard body check. This results in Oduya turning the puck over to Komarov. Komarov then makes a smart pass to Peter Holland for the game winner. It has been suggested that maybe the hit was from behind and should have been a penalty, and maybe it could have been. It was on the edge, which is how Komarov plays. Yet he does seem to somehow stay on the honorable side of things. Even so, Oduya put himself in a vulnerable position by turning his back to an opposing player, Komarov did not hit Oduya towards the boards but away from them. It can be argued that it may have been a penalty but it definitely was not a dirty play. Also, most importantly, it helped the Leafs earn 2 important points against a very good Chicago team.
In that particular instance the Leafs won the game because of a play made by Komarov. Those types of plays are not always going to end up in the back of the net. They do always seem to send a message though; if a player does not move the puck quickly when Komarov is on the ice they are likely going to get hit. When that thought is put into an opposing players mind, it can change how they play. Some players may try to force a play and move the puck too quickly to avoid being hit. This can create turn overs and ultimately offense for the Leafs. They are not always bone crushing, highlight reel hits, but they are consistent enough to frustrate the opposing team, something that Komarov is very good at.
In addition to that defining characteristic in Komarov’s game, Leo is also very good defensively. Any time Komarov is on the ice he battles. In the majority of cases he wins those battles and ends up with the puck. Komarov does not have hands like Patick Kane, but he always seems to make a smart play. His battling and smart decision making helps the Leafs properly and safely break out of their own zone when he is on the ice. Furthermore, when Komarov does not have the puck he is usually correctly positioned defensively, he is not a liability, or a player trying to do too much, Komarov is a smart veteran player. It is even more remarkable considering that this is only his second NHL season.
Komarov’s strong defensive play has earned him a leading roll on the Maple Leaf penalty killing unit. The currently 11th ranked penalty kill has improved drastically from that of last years. The additions of Santorelli and Komarov have made it much more difficult to score when the Leafs are a man short. The positioning has been much better than it was with last years penalty killing group. So far this season, for an opposing team to score on the power play against the Leafs, they usually have to earn it and can’t count on defensive lapses in the Leafs penalty killing unit like in many of the years past. It is probably not a coincidence that for the two seasons that Komarov has been on the penalty kill, the Leafs have had good numbers in that area. During his first stint with the Leafs, they finished 2nd in the league on the penalty kill! Every other season since the 2008-2009 season have seen the Leafs finish in the bottom five of the NHL in said department. Special teams are obviously very important in the NHL. If a team is among the worst in any area of the game year after year, it is very unlikely that they will successful. Although the Leafs power play has generally been consistent, the penalty kill has not. Komarov’s presence has been a huge improvement to that critical weakness.
Along with his physical presence and strong defensive play, Komarov is also a well liked player and leader in the Leafs dressing room. “We love having him” is what Peter Holland said after Komarov scored the game winning goal against the New York Rangers on Saturday. “He’s just a funny, good guy to be around, and he plays hard”, is what coach Carlyle remarked of him after the same game. When a team has players like Komarov, it brings them together. His team-first mentality and consistent hard work is evidence of the great character that Leo Komarov possesses. It is also contagious, a player like Komarov generates energy for the team when it is needed.
Corporal Komarov has become a fan favorite for a reason. He plays the game hard, honest, and responsibly. He may not be an elite scorer like Phil Kessel but every team wants and needs players like Komarov in order to be succesful. He has the versatility to play anywhere in the line up and is not a liability to the team. He is modest and unselfish, and every game he plays in a Leaf uniform increases the odds of them making the playoffs.
Cover Photo Credit: (Getty Images – Greg Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)