TORONTO – They have for years been the odd couple bickering at the end of the Toronto Maple Leafs bench.
The happy-go-lucky Canadian with a mischievous streak, and the matter-of-fact Finn who has been known to regale teammates with stories about his time in the army.
What’s truly amazing about Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov is how inseparable they’ve remained throughout a tumultuous period for the Leafs – with Komarov playing 88.68 per cent of his even-strength minutes alongside Kadri since Mike Babcock stepped behind the Toronto bench for the 2015-16 season.
It was rather unusual, then, to see them wearing different-coloured practice sweaters on Tuesday afternoon. Some line juggling from Babcock could have been predicted with his team in a 6-8-4 malaise.
Splitting up Nos. 43 and 47? That was a surprise.
“It was actually kind of weird going up against him for once,” said Kadri. “He’s been my linemate for a lot of years, but it’s not like this is a goodbye-type scenario. I think it’s just a different look to try to get some offence going and I’m sure that it’ll head back to that eventually.”
On the surface, he’s right.
Babcock was quick to point out that his new-look lineup was designed with the road in mind, and that Kadri and Komarov would be reunited at Air Canada Centre after Wednesday’s game in Chicago and Thursday’s visit to Dallas.
But there is a case to be made that this should be the new normal for the Leafs. The pair are no longer tilting the ice like they once did – going from 53.2 per cent possession together two seasons ago to 50.2 per cent to 46.5 per cent now.
Granted, they’ve faced an increasingly difficult level of competition while morphing into two-thirds of Babcock’s shutdown line, but they’ve also seen their own offensive production stalled for the better part of seven weeks.
A shakeup was inevitable.
Following Monday’s 4-2 loss to Colorado – a game where the Kadri trio effectively neutralized Nathan MacKinnon and produced an even-strength goal off the stick of Patrick Marleau – Babcock dropped Komarov to the fourth line with Dominic Moore and AHL callup Kasperi Kapanen, while bumping Mitchell Marner up beside Marleau and Kadri.
The Leafs are looking for more goals and better balance from top to bottom.
“As I went through the tape [of the game against the Avalanche], to me, we weren’t dangerous enough in the offensive zone,” said Babcock. “We had the puck all the time, but we weren’t dangerous enough. We just looked at what we can do. We’ve been talking about it for a long time so it’s not like a spur-of-the-moment thing.”
It’s a reminder of the change lurking in the shadows with this team.
Kapanen will be a full-fledged Maple Leaf sooner rather than later. Komarov is a pending unrestricted free agent who must be wondering if the clock is ticking on his time in Toronto. James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak – formerly members of the Leafs top line – could be moving on as well this summer.
The most important task facing Babcock in the leadup to the playoffs is finding the lineup that is toughest for an opponent to match up against. The strength of this team still lies in its offensive depth.
It’s become a more challenging puzzle with Kadri managing just one goal in his last 20 games – putting added strain on the other lines to produce during a stretch that he’s attributed to bad luck. That’s why he’s now skating beside an elusive playmaker in Marner rather than the meat-and-potatoes Komarov.
“Mitch is obviously a skilled player and has lots of speed,” said Kadri. “He’s got a head for the game and becoming more and more responsible. He’s going to give us a little bit of a different look on that right side and hopefully we can generate some more offence.”
It could signal the end of an era in Toronto.
Komarov skated alongside Peter Holland and Mark Arcobello on Oct. 7, 2015 – Babcock’s first game with the Leafs – but soon found his place with Kadri and Michael Grabner. Fuelled by a shooting percentage surge, he scored a career-best 19 goals that season and represented the Leafs at the 2016 all-star game in Nashville.
He’s been a complimentary piece on Kadri’s wing ever since – all-the-while acknowledging he’s not a traditional top-six forward by current NHL standards.
“I got some chances lately, but it’s like I’ve said my whole career: My job is not to score,” Komarov said last week. “My job is to win the games.”
“I mean he’s not super-flashy, but he’s going to get the puck in [the offensive zone],” Kadri said of Komarov. “He’s a great forechecker, he’ll get you pucks back.”
Babcock has always seen a secondary benefit to having those two paired together. Kadri is prone to having his attention wander like a Jack Russell Terrier and Komarov has never been shy about delivering a stern message to his good buddy between shifts.
That’s why the cameras always catch them having epic debates on the bench.
“I like Leo there because he gives Naz a tightening about 10 times a game just to keep him in line,” said Babcock.
That job may now fall to someone else.