It’s no secret that Brian Burke likes his hockey teams to be, for the most part, big, nasty, and in your face physical. Â He also has a penchant for looking for players from his home country of the United States, but as he said, he would sign players who were from the moon if they could play the game.
Last summer, Burke’s first free agency period with the Toronto Maple Leafs, it seemed all too fitting that he would target one of the nastiest, meanest, American born defenseman on the market, to give the Toronto Maple Leafs some much needed snarl.
That player was Mike Komisarek, a New York native who had honed his skills with the University of Michigan before being drafted by the Montreal Canadians in 2001. Â Komisarek had made a name for himself in Montreal, becoming a fan favourite for his strong physical play, his in your face attitude, and his willingness to drop the gloves and defend teammates when needed.
Only the snarl the Leafs thought they got seemed more like a wimper.
Indeed, year one in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform didn’t go exactly as planned for Komisarek, who spurned his former club, the Montreal Canadiens, in order to jump ship in hockey’s most decorated rivalry.
The Leafs signed Komisarek to a five year deal, with an average salary of $4.5 million a season, which seemed like a number most of us could live with, considering what Komisarek brings to the team, and considering how the numbers in the open market seem to escalate.
The reaction was split amongst Leafs Nation however. Â Komisarek wasn’t coming off his best season in Montreal, a season that saw him suffer shoulder woes, and a fight with Milan Lucic in which his play was not quite the same upon his return. Â Despite this, there were many Leafs supporters who felt that Komisarek would be a welcome addition to the Leafs back end, a player who loves to play on the edge, brings an intimidation factor, and carries himself as a leader both on and off the ice.
However, like a lot of plans, it didn’t work out like everyone thought.
Komisarek struggled mightily in the first few months of the season, something head coach Ron Wilson and GM Brian Burke chocked up to “trying too hard” to make an impact. Â Komisarek was simply trying too hard out of the gate in order to make a positive impression among his teammates, and more importantly, the fans.
The issue being, of course, that like a good offensive lineman, Komisarek is on top of his game when you talk about him as little as possible.
A strong, physical player who carries himself on his defensive zone play, Komisarek was caught out of position too many times in the opening games of the season, and the result was a poor plus/minus, and a difficult start to his tenure as a Leafs player.
Things only got worse for the hulking blue liner, as Komisarek reencountered the shoulder woes that stunted his previous season with the Montreal Canadiens. Â On February 3rd, 2010, it was announced by the Leafs organization that Komisarek would be shut down for the season. Â surgery would be required to correct the shoulder injury would end his season, and his chance to represent team USA at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
For Komisarek, it was a devastating way for his first season in Toronto to end. Â A frustrating finish to a frustrating season.
It hasn’t been all for naught however. Â The lost season, and the struggles while he was on the ice (he recorded only 4 points, and was a minus -9, second worst on the team) have certainly seemed to serve as motivation for the year to come.
Komisarek has been working hard in the off season since resuming workouts a few months ago. Â He has taken to Twitter as one of the first and only members (alongside Colby Armstrong, and perhaps a few others) of the Toronto Maple Leafs to interact with fans of the team on such a level. Â He has taken to updating fans on his progress, routinely posting photos of him hitting the ice, or gym, at the Mastercard centre for excellence, the practice facility of the Leafs.
He has also been busy throughout the summer promoting the Toronto Maple Leafs on other levels as well.
Komisarek makes a conscious effort to be a regular on the charity circuit for the Leafs, whether it be making visits to local schools and hospitals, or teaching kids at hockey camp, or taking in a game of surprise shinny.
All this, of course, isn’t surprising to anyone who knows Komisarek. Â Leafs GM Brian Burke has gone on record before, speaking glowingly about the type of stand up person he (Komisarek) is off the ice, and was long considered to be a strong personality for the vacant captaincy of the Leafs, before an injury and a trade for Dion Phaneuf derailed those plans.
A full, healthy season from Komisarek, and it becomes less and less clear over which player would wear the C for Toronto this upcoming season.
However, in listening to Komisarek talk, it seems that having a letter on his jersey or not will not change the game he plays on the ice. Â Though he did wear an A with Montreal and during his brief time with Toronto, it is clear to those close to the team that he will command attention, and the room, whether he has a letter stitched on the jersey or not.
For the Leafs to have success this year, it is integral that Komisarek have a healthy campaign in which he can return to the game that made him one of the defenders who was hard to play against, night in and night out. Â This observer can remember many a nights post lockout where Komisarek routinely shadowed former Leafs captain Mats Sundin-not an easy frame to keep in check-with regularity, and seemingly with ease.
And while the depth of the Toronto Maple Leafs defense, at least as it stands right now, indicates that the team may be able to withstand a few injuries to defenders, one can argue that Komisarek is a player who needs to be in the lineup more often than not for the Leafs to improve their defensive zone play, and playoff chances.
Along with Tomas Kaberle, Dion Phaneuf, and Luke Schenn, they make a formidable top four, who, when on their game, can likely match up among the best in the Eastern Conference.
The Maple Leafs have made a lot of changes since the Brian Burke era began, but perhaps none more epitomizes the GM’s brash style off the ice, than the way Komisarek plays on the ice. Â All reports indicate that he has put in a tremendous amount of hard work off the ice to ensure that his play on the ice improves dramatically over last seasons lost year.
And for the Leafs organization and their fans, they can only hope all the hard work put in turns into a positive output. Â It has become clear that for Komisarek, as long as he injury free, he is likely going to be a factor for the Leafs this year.
A favourite quote of mine, from an unknown author, states that “some people dream of success…while others wake up and work hard at it.”
When it comes to Mike Komisarek and his road back to being a healthy and effective player with the Toronto Maple Leafs, you could argue that no one this summer has been up earlier.