TORONTO — When Dave Nonis discreetly boarded a plane for Finland at the end of a hectic draft weekend, it was a night like this one he had in mind.
The NHL’s free agency period was about to open and the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager wanted to make sure Leo Komarov didn’t end up anywhere else. So he travelled seven time zones and hand-delivered an $11.8-million, four-year contract proposal over dinner — a gesture that appeared a tad excessive for a depth forward.
At least at the time.
Yet, as you watched Toronto twice rally from behind to edge the New York Rangers 5-4 on Saturday night, it was much easier to understand Nonis’ bold pitch.
Komarov was a force from start to finish.
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When the Leafs fell behind in the opening minute, it was the agitating winger that drew a penalty which allowed them to tie the score. When Toronto went ahead 2-1, Komarov stole the puck from Matt Hunwick, fought off a check from Mats Zuccarello and set up Peter Holland for the short-handed goal.
After the Rangers made it 4-3 early in the third period?
Komarov helped set a screen on Cam Talbot for Roman Polak’s tying goal and then scored the winner with less than six minutes to play in regulation.
It was the signature performance of a NHL career that has spanned just 63 games so far. Komarov was an easy selection as first star.
“We love having him,” Holland said afterwards.
That helps explain why Nonis was so adamant about getting him to return after a season away in the KHL. Komarov left Toronto following the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign in part because he could earn more money with Dynamo Moscow, but also because he would get a larger role.
When the 27-year-old decided to come back to North America, it was important for him to know how he would be used.
Komarov had control of the situation as an unrestricted free agent and a number of interested teams reached out during the negotiation window that preceded July 1. It appeared unlikely that he would be returning to Toronto.
That is, at least, until Nonis arranged for a last-minute Sunday night meeting at the only Helsinki restaurant open for business. The Leafs GM didn’t just have a generous contract offer, he also had a message to deliver: “I told him it was going to be different than last time.”
Nonis thought it was important for Komarov to know that the organization had missed him. He also wanted to show how serious it was about giving him more of an opportunity to contribute.
“You can say anything over the phone,” Nonis explained to me earlier this week. “It’s different when you look someone in the eye.”
The Leafs have certainly delivered on the promise to play him more.
Komarov received a career-best 20:24 of ice time in Colorado on Thursday night and is averaging two minutes more per night on average this season. According to coach Randy Carlyle, a conscious effort has been made to give Komarov a better opportunity at even strength while continuing to use him as a penalty killer.
On Saturday night, with the Leafs clinging to a one-goal lead, he took two shifts inside the final two minutes and won a defensive zone faceoff.
That’s a far cry from where he was at the end of the 2013 season. Remember that Komarov watched Toronto’s entire three-goal collapse in Game 7 against Boston from the bench after failing to get a shift in the final 17:51.
There are those within the organization that believe he has returned to the NHL as a much more confident player. It’s hard to argue with the assessment given that he’s already matched his previous point total with nine in 14 games.
“When I came two years ago, I had (too much) respect — when you come from Europe you see these guys on TV and stuff,” said Komarov. “But then when you’ve played here and come back again, it feels easier.”
As for the unexpected meeting with Nonis in Helsinki, the thought of it is still something that makes him smile.
He was extremely popular among his teammates during the first tour of duty in Toronto, but now he can be sure of where he stands with his bosses as well.
“I think it’s a good for a player when you know that they care about you and they want you back,” said Komarov. “(The meeting with Nonis) made a big impression on me and it helped me to decide. It was a big thing.”
Without it, the Leafs probably would have left the Air Canada Centre on Saturday with two fewer points in the standings.