Following the conclusion of the disastrous 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs campaign, the common theme discussed by “General Manager” Dave Nonis was how the team needed to get back to their 2012-13 identity. Coincidentally enough, since the Kyle Dubas hiring, that idea hasn’t really been discussed as frequently. That could either be to the fact that the new kids on the block have changed the tone of the conversation surrounding the Leafs, or that some of the people who believed the Leafs needed to get back to the 2012-13 team are no longer employed by the organization. The actions moving forward by the blue and white will answer that question.
A couple of the first moves made by the Leafs was re-acquiring 26 year old Matt Frattin from the Columbus Blue Jackets and bringing back Leo Komarov from the KHL. Frattin may be someone who I’ll discuss on another day. For this article I’d like to focus on the Komarov. A few days prior to the draft Leafs (then) Assistant GM Claude Loiselle had this to say when asked whether the team wanted to bring back Komarov:
Absolutely. We’re still in contact with him. It’s a process. We just saw the cap go up to $69 million, we thought it was going to be higher. Believe it or not, that $1 million dollars, effects a lot. That’s one player on your roster. It’s going to be so tight. There were so many teams that were in overage last year. They were in LTI and ended up spending too much money. The overage ends up coming off your cap this year. It again brings your cap down to a lower number.
Loiselle’s point about teams being in overage includes the Leafs. Under Loiselle’s astute handling of the salary cap the Leafs actually have $512,500 less to spend this year on their team (all figures courtesy of CapGeek). When one looks back and analyzes just how embarrassing the 2013-14 Leafs season was, the fact that they were over the cap sticks out as one of the most shocking components. Interesting that Loiselle mentions about how tight things are considering the aforementioned overage money on this season’s cap as well as that interview taking place on the same day the Leafs retained $200,000 of salary in the Carl Gunnarsson-Roman Polak trade. Throw on top of that the Tim Gleason buyout ($833,333 this year) and the Leafs have $1,545,833 less to operate with this year.
That takes me to Komarov. I’ll begin by saying I think Komarov is an effective role player who can contribute on the penalty kill and help an NHL team. I think the myth of Komarov has far exceeded the reality of him though. He is definitely a fan favourite, but even his biggest supporters think he is at best a checking line forward. If Komarov is expected to provide offense or play second line minutes for an NHL team then I think that team should expect to not win many hockey games. I don’t know how a capologist can say money is tight and every dollar counts then go out and pay a role player $2.95 million dollars a season over 4 years. This has been a problem that this organization repeatedly makes. The Leafs overpaid Komarov just like they overpaid David Clarkson, Colby Armstrong, Mark Fraser, Mike Komisarek and others because they provided an “identity” they were obsessed with. The reality is, players like this can be acquired every year to play these roles and paid very close to the league minimum. There is absolutely no reason at all to pay a premium for these players.
When it comes to the 2012-13 Leafs and Komarov’s impact, I’m still somewhat confused as to why the Leafs thought it was so critical (and the money they paid him demonstrates they did). Komarov finished that season with 4 goals and 5 assists in 42 regular season games. In the playoffs, Komarov had 0 points in 7 games. It’s not like he didn’t have a chance to produce offensively, Komarov’s most common linemates were Nazem Kadri, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur. Komarov did begin 43.5% of his even strength shifts in the offensive zone (4th lowest among Leaf forwards behind Grabovski 36.7%, Nikolai Kulemin 35% and Jay McClement 27.9%), but, if we’re going to point to zone-starts as an excuse for low offensive numbers, keep in mind those other three forwards all outscored Komarov in 2012-13. I also remember many saying Grabovski and Kulemin’s zone-starts weren’t a valid reason for their offense. Can’t have it both ways.
Some point to Komarov being a crucial part of the Leafs’ stellar PK unit. He averaged 1:48 per night for Randy Carlyle that season (second only to McClement) and was very effective. If the Leafs are going to be paying a premium for PK specialists though, they might as well have kept McClement. Coincidentally, the Leafs signed Daniel Winnick this season from the Anaheim Ducks. Winnick has averaged the most short handed time on ice the past two seasons for the Ducks (2:32 in 2012-13 and 2:31 in 2013-14). The Ducks ranked 13th on the penalty kill in those two seasons. Is Komarov’s effectiveness on the PK that much greater than Winnick’s?
If Komarov was so critical to the Leafs’ success why did his ice time go from 13:56 a night in the regular season to 9:13 in the post-season? In the final three games of that series (where the Leafs were facing elimination) Komarov saw 6:42, 7:57 and 8:23 respectively. That doesn’t scream identity or crucial to the team to me. Those numbers would point to Komarov being a non-essential member of the team and a player Carlyle didn’t trust playing when the stakes reached their highest point.
When it comes to Komarov, my thoughts align with what Loiselle was preaching above: things are tight and it’s a process. The Leafs are a work in progress and they can always find someone to play Komarov’s role for less money than they handed the popular Finn. In fact, this summer, the Leafs handed out one-year deals to Mike Santorelli ($1.5 million), Winnick ($1.3 million) and David Booth ($1.1 million). That is the proper way to fill out the bottom of the roster. Cheap and low-risk one year deals. Loiselle has since been replaced by Brandon Pridham as Leafs capologist. I’m curious to see in what way Pridham navigates the choppy waters he has inherited. How Pridham handles this situation may be the biggest factor in how quickly the Leafs return to becoming a successful team. He sure has his work cut out for him.