The Big 3
That title rings out through Leafs Nation these days with big expectations, big dreams, and big numbers. The number of goals to be scored, the number of games to be won, and, (dare we dream) The number of cups to win.
It also comes with the expectation that there will be big cheques written, big cap hits to deal with, and lots of years in to live with them.
As a result, center their eyes fixed on the players that are up for immediate renewal. James Van Riemsdyk has found himself firmly planted in the “maybe the return and cap space is more valuable than the player” category, which is ironic because his ability to produce and his right to command a massive contract based on that production is what has gotten him there. Tyler Bozak, from what I can tell, has entered into the “if the number is right he can stay, push for too much and buh bye buddy” region. We also have a few upcoming unrestricted free agents that are bound to hit the open market at seasons end if they don’t prove to be efficient and cheap. Namely Dominic Moore and Eric Fehr.
Then there is the subject of this article. The player that was said to be vastly overpaid at the beginning of his current deal. The guy that may now, to some, be considered a little underpaid, to others a little overpaid, but to most, he’s right on the money. The question is though, what can he get if he leaves Toronto because that is going to be used as leverage to determine what it will cost to have him stay.
The player I’m talking about is none other than “Uncle” Leo Komarov. He has, for the most part, ducked out of the way of all the “who should stay and who should go” talk. Maybe that has something to do with GM Lou Lamoriello saying he is “part of the core” in the not too distant past? Maybe it’s the fact that we here in Toronto love a player that is willing to lay the body with reckless abandon? Uncle Leo has certainly done that. Tied for 12th in hits this past season among all NHL skaters, he isn’t shy about throwing a body check. In fact, he ranked 5th the season before, 13th before that, and in his debut, the shortened 2012/13 season, he was 5th again.
After that, we see a player that used on the penalty kill because of his defensive awareness. In 2015/16 he registered 1:40 TOI/GP shorthanded, that still stands as the lowest of his NHL career and that’s where he has found the most consistency. Randy Carlyle used Komarov as a bottom six energy player with plenty of PK time but he didn’t see any powerplay opportunities. As a result, he finished his first year with just 9pts in 42 games. After a one year hiatus in which he rejoined the KHL, he returned to much the same situation. Randy Carlyle began the season here, but Peter Horacheck finished it. His usage didn’t change much, but his point totals increased to 26pts in 62 games, good for a 34pt pro-rated pace. Fast forward yet another year, and we see another jump in production, now under current bench boss Mike Babcock. Under Babcock, he has excelled all over the ice. First, with a weak roster that saw the Leafs finish dead last in the NHL, he saw a sharp uptick in powerplay TOI/GP with over 2 minutes a night, and his overall TOI/GP jumped as well as he played the 2nd most minutes per game on the team among forwards. He rewarded Babcock with his best production to date, a 36pt, 67 game season, which pro-rates to 45pts. That brings us to his most recent season, one where he settled in on Nazem Kadri’s left wing, after playing the previous year as mainly a right winger. He, along with Kadri and, for the most part, Connor Brown, was tasked with shutting down the other teams top offensive threats and faired well. Kadri and Komarov play an agitating game which helps throw the opposition off of theirs, and it’s this quality that makes him so effective at what he does. His time of ice remained high, finishing second among forwards to only Auston Matthews, while playing over 2 minutes a game on the powerplay and penalty kill. The Leafs, as a unit, finished 2nd in the league in PP% and 10th in PK%. That above all else is very telling. Not only is he a big part of those units but they are enjoying a lot of success. Of course, this also has to do with the influx of skill but hockey is a team game, and Uncle Leo looks to be a big part of that team.
So we’ve established that he’s willing to hit often. We’ve outlined his usage and, I think, have proven that Mike Babcock trusts him. There are more than a few that question just how effective it is to have a team that hits a lot though, so they’ll naturally ask how much it’s worth to pay for that. The benefits, or lack thereof, of having players that consistently lay the body is a debate for another day. What is tough to debate is New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck ($3.5M AAV), Vancouver Canucks’ Derek Dorsett ($2.65M AAV), and Toronto’s own Matt Martin ($2.5M AAV) getting paid for bringing a physical element to their teams without bringing much offense. So, while these players are often willing to fight (something Komarov isn’t apt to do), they are somewhat comparable. I think it’s especially true in the case of Cal Clutterbuck, who is also utilized on the penalty kill, while the Islanders finished just one place behind the Maple Leafs in PK% this season. Clutterbuck doesn’t bring the offense that Komarov does though.
We could also look at players such as Brandon Dubinsky ($5.85M AAV) or David Backes ($6M AAV). They play a physical game as well and compare further by playing an efficient defensive game. However, they are the opposite of Clutterbuck in the sense that they have both achieved levels of offensive success that Uncle Leo hasn’t.
So, instead, let’s look at strictly point totals and usage. A significant (and recent) UFA to compare him to is Nick Bonino. Similarly aged, similar production, checking role players that both saw powerplay and penalty kill time this season and last. They are both tasked with the defensive assignments on their teams and aren’t afraid to get their noses dirty. The only difference between the two, on paper, is the hitting and pestering quality that Komarov brings.
Nick Bonino became an unrestricted free agent this summer and was signed by the Nashville Predators to a four year, $16.4M contract, with an annual cap hit of $4.1M. Nobody scoffed. Nobody jeered. Nobody so much as flinched.
If we use this as the benchmark then where do we go? One could say that Bonino has done what he has over a slightly longer period of time, while also doing it for different teams, which could mean he could demand more play. He’s also a centre, which is a more coveted position in general. However, Leo brings different aspects to the game as well, and can play both wings actually, is more physical and does it while also being a terrific presence in the room. So would it all be enough to cancel out?
A $4.1M AAV may be a reasonable contract to expect for a guy that brings so much to the team if you ask me. The question is, do you agree? Also, how many of these mid level contracts can they carry and still accommodate the expected big deals for the Big 3? I guess that’s a question we can’t answer until we know just how much the Big 3 will make. Until then I will ask this. How would you feel if you saw your Uncle Leo pestering the Maple Leafs while wearing enemy colours? I know that’s something I never want to witness.