Leo Komarov, Mike Babcock and Earning Ice Time

    Since his arrival in leaf land, Leo Komarov has earned near consensus admiration among the fan base. His on-ice antics and hard nose play style made him a favourite of many, including Mike Babcock. Leo has had a less than ideal season to date thus far, but surprisingly maintains a consistent spot near the top of the lineup. While the recent loss of Auston Matthews has generated some turbulence, Babcock’s continued willingness to hand Uncle Leo ice time while more skilled alternatives sit on the bench is certainly a real head-scratcher. As the Leafs continue to struggle in shot generation, it is important to question why a player with such poor offensive results is continuing to get opportunities.

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    Poor Performance

    Over the past 10 games, Komarov has lead the Leafs’ forwards in ice time, averaging 18:04 per night. Unfortunately, however, he has produced just 1 point over that span (an empty net goal in a 4-1 game). Of all 34 games Leo has played this season (the majority of which have been played with Kadri and Marleau), Komarov unfathomably has 0 primary assists. While Leo was never brought here to be an offensive dynamo or natural goal scorer, his absolute inability to provide a meaningful offensive contribution while playing with offensively competent linemates is dumbfounding.

    Frustrations are compounded by the fact that William Nylander has struggled to get a foothold in the lineup over the same time period, averaging just 14:37 minutes per game. Babcock time and time again limits Nylander’s ice time in favor of players like Komarov and Zach Hyman, who simply lack the offensive tools and creativity to generate offense on their own. In spite of Nylander generating almost 100 more shot attempts so far this season, he is being benched frequently in favor of less talented alternatives. Komarov’s primary points per 60 minutes is the fourth worst among all players with over 400 minutes of ice time this season.

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    Babcock’s lineup decisions are often in direct contradiction to his press conferences. While Babcock has stated many times that lineup decisions are results-oriented, there is a laundry list of players who would likely disagree. I am sure Carrick has enjoyed his time in the press box while Roman Polak does stuff like this. Kapanen also sends his regards from the AHL.

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    Know Your Role

    Several have intelligently pointed out that drawing a direct comparison between the ice times of Komarov and Nylander is not entirely fair, given their drastically different roles on the team. Nylander’s extremely poor shooting this season (just 6.4%), coupled with his poor defensive results, has made it difficult to trust him with more ice time. Conversely, while Komarov has completely disappeared offensively, he is still a relatively competent player in his own end and continues to be deployed with Kadri in a shutdown role. Without Auston Matthews in the lineup, Babcock has been forced to use the Komarov / Kadri line against top opposition, leading to the sudden jumps in ice time being criticized above.

    Conclusion

    While Babcock is arguably one of the greatest hockey coaches of our generation, he is not without fault. His affinity for certain players is well documented since his time in Detroit, and his obsession with Komarov is no different. While they may have different roles and responsibilities, Nylander is still the better player and needs to see more than 14 minutes of ice a night. Babcock’s unwillingness to sit his favourite players, with demonstrably poor results, while objectively better alternatives are sitting both in the AHL and on his own bench, is a considerable detriment to the team. My opinion is that while Nylander is still best left out of tough defensive assignments, more ice time needs to be attributed to offensive catalysts while players like Komarov take a decreased role moving forward.

    All stats courtesy of corsica.hockey – http://corsica.hockey/skater-stats/

    Note: The day after this article was written, William Nylander played 16:05 and scored his first goal in 8 games in an 8-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes