Few fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs had their sights set too high for the club’s 2015-16 campaign. Sure, famed Canadian bench-boss Mike Babcock was joining the fold as head coach, but after parting ways with top players like Phil Kessel – who led the team in scoring in 2014-15 – the overall outlook for the new season remained fairly bleak.
That prediction has paid off for the most part, as Toronto currently ranks as the second-worst team in the league with only 10 wins through 30 games.
However, there has been one surprising bright spot for the club, as Leo Komarov has seemingly come out of nowhere to become one of the team’s most useful contributors.
After posting just 26 points in 62 games last season, Komarov has already racked up 18 points in 30 contests in 2015-16, including a career-high 11 goals in that span. While they aren’t the loftiest of totals, they are among the best in Toronto at the moment. Komarov’s point total is currently the third-highest on the Leafs’ roster, and he’s been the team’s leading goal-scorer thus far.
But the Estonian native has been pacing the Leafs in ways other than simply finding the twine. He’s also been one of Toronto’s top possession drivers, currently ranking second among all regular Leafs skaters with a Corsi For percentage of 55.2, and ranking among Toronto’s top five forwards in both total shot attempts (89) and the percentage of attempts that have made it to the net (61.8 percent).
His work on the defensive side of the puck has drawn praise as well, most notably through Komarov bringing a consistent hard-nosed edge. The 28-year-old has made life tough for opposing teams by landing a team-leading 137 hits, while also holding the second-highest number of takeaways (20) and ranking among the top five Leafs forwards in even-strength Goals-Against per 60 minutes.
It’s been a superb first quarter for Komarov’s 2015-16 effort, and it seems the club’s coaching change may be at the core of this improvement.
The most intriguing aspect of Komarov’s 2015-16 ascension has been his usage under the Leafs’ new bench-boss. After averaging just 14:42 minutes of ice-time last season under former head coaches Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek, Komarov is now averaging around 17 minutes per game – and even saw that total jump as high as 21:15 in Toronto’s recent tilt against New Jersey.
As well, his zone-start usage has changed dramatically under Babcock’s reign. Komarov started over 60 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone last season, serving primarily as a checking grinder in Toronto’s bottom-six. However, Babcock seems to have seen something notable in Komarov’s offensive game, resulting in him starting the forward in the offensive zone 62.2 percent of the time this season. The results have been undeniable, as Toronto’s unlikely star is on pace for a career-best 28 goals and 48 points.
His vastly improved play hasn’t gone unnoticed by Babcock either – the new coach had this to say when asked about Komarov last month:
“He’s been unbelievable. He’s dangerous every night – he plays hard every night. He finishes his checks. He plays on offence, he plays on defence. He just plays.”
For a no-nonsense strategist like Babcock, Komarov’s brand of hockey is surely a likeable one. There’s no glitz or glamour to the hard-nosed forward’s play – just relentless effort supplemented with enough skill to make a regular impact on the scoreboard.
Well-rounded versatility has also played a key role in Komarov endearing himself to Babcock. While Toronto still has a few notable offensive pieces on their roster in Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk, there is no better blend of skill, strength, and reliability on the Leafs’ roster than Komarov.
Case in point, Komarov ranks as one of only three forwards in the league who have racked up over 100 hits already while also scoring at a 20-goal pace. He leads that trio with 140 hits and a pace of .37 goals-per-game, while veterans Milan Lucic and David Backes round out the group with 116 hits apiece and respective goals-per-game marks of .32 and .30.
Babcock was quick to highlight this versatility when discussing his newest star earlier this season:
“I didn’t know he was this good, that he played this hard and was this competitive. He’s an important part of our team. He’s a constant – you can count on him every day. You (give direction) and he just does it. He’s mean, he really skates, he glides with the puck better than I expected. He has seven goals, but he can kill penalties, play on the power play, do whatever you need him to do.”
That’s quite a haul of compliments heaped on Komarov by a coach who’s been far less forgiving with other members of his team already this season. Needless to say, Babcock has spotted some untapped potential in Komarov – something missed by previous regimes, which could allow the veteran forward to grow into a legitimate top-six talent. It’s a trend Babcock’s former club, the Detroit Red Wings, practice regularly – most notably with their brightest star of the past decade, Pavel Datsyuk, who was drafted in the sixth round before becoming one of the most talented players the game has ever seen.
Komarov surely won’t come anywhere close to Datsyuk’s level, as his skill-level – while impressive – is simply not of that ilk, and his approach to the game is entirely different. That being said, there’s no denying the fact that Babcock comes from a culture of developing hidden gems into bona fide stars, and Komarov seems primed to become the newest name in that notable line.
While his absurdly high shooting-percentage (19.3 percent) suggests he could very well regress and finish closer to the 20-goal plateau than the 30-goal mark, the Leafs will certainly take the offense either way as they stumble through a difficult rebuilding season. Regardless of where Komarov’s stat line concludes or how high the Leafs rank by the season’s end, the emergence of the versatile forward could be key for Toronto, especially as they begin to transition more young players to the NHL level over the coming seasons.
Nearly every other Leafs leader has had questions raised regarding their attitude or consistency in recent years, but Komarov’s blue-collar, straight-ahead approach is exactly the type of mindset and skill-set Babcock would likely want Leafs rookies to adopt. Exceptional talents like William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen certainly aren’t going to be modelling their game after Komarov’s style, but Babcock’s time in Detroit should make clear the fact that the veteran coach values work ethic and reliability over pure highlight-reel skill.
Komarov will seemingly have the rest of the 2015-16 campaign to see how far that blue-collar skill can take him in a top-six role, as he’s earned the trust of his coaches and teammates thus far, and shows no signs of slowing down just yet.