TORONTO – When you look at Leo Komarov’s career, the numbers tell the story of a player who plays the game the right way: Tough, hard and clean.
He’d been assessed all of 60 total penalty minutes heading into his 160th career NHL game on Thursday night, and credited with a team-leading 671 hits in the process.
While a few of those can be judged as crossing the line – he recently apologized to Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Kris Letang for catching him from behind earlier this season – Komarov had never found himself in a discipline hearing or even serving a major penalty until elbowing New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh in the head this week. (Watch the play at the top of this post.)
That rightly earned the Maple Leafs winger a three-game suspension while also highlighting an uncomfortable truth about hockey: Occasionally this is going to happen.
“Not every one can be a clean one,” Komarov lamented Saturday.
This is not to show any disrespect to McDonagh, who had just returned to the Rangers’ lineup from a concussion and is now dealing with a jaw contusion. The game is worse in the bigger picture without someone of his skill and ability on the ice.
Komarov clearly felt bad about what happened and indicated that he’ll express his remorse in person the next time he crosses paths with McDonagh.
But here’s the thing: He can’t guarantee it won’t happen again.
“My style, it’s tough,” said Komarov. “If you miss a hit a little bit it’s going to be like it was last game. I just need to keep hitting and play the same way and try to be even tougher.”
That might seem like a strange thing to say under the circumstances, but it falls perfectly in line with everything else we know about Komarov.
The man is honest.
And in the wider context, given his 670 NHL hits that weren’t suspension-worthy and the one that was, the biggest takeaway here is probably that mistakes are bound to happen in a game that requires players to constantly play on the edge.
“Leo’s a good player, a good man, he plays hard,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “It’s unfortunate that it happened … (but now) he’s got to serve his time. That’s the way it should be.”
As a longshot sixth-round pick in 2006, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Komarov never would have reached the NHL if he didn’t operate close to the line. I remember chatting with former Leafs general manager Brian Burke during the 2012 IIHF World Hockey Championship and him raving about the Finnish winger who had finally decided to come to North America: “He’s dynamic, explosive, obnoxious and skilled.”
Komarov has since lived up to that billing and become arguably the most popular Leaf in the process.
Now he’s got a week to reflect on what happened, which isn’t a turn he expected in a season where he’s led the team in scoring and recently played in the NHL All-Star Game. Should he cross the line again during the next 18 months, he’ll be considered a repeat offender and dealt with more harshly.
“I just feel bad,” said Komarov. “I want to play hockey, that’s the thing. Three games to sit and watch the boys play, it’s not easy.”
In the video explanation that accompanied Friday’s suspension announcement, the NHL’s department of player safety noted that Komarov “deliberately extends his elbow” when going to hit McDonagh. That’s certainly how it looked, and the result was ugly.
It’s the kind of hit we never want to see in this sport, but probably won’t ever get rid of entirely.
“It’s not a clean hit obviously, so I knew something (was coming),” said Komarov. “I think I’ve got a lot of hits and playing hard, and that’s the way. Sometimes it happens like that, there’s nothing you can do. It’s not my first time, but it’s probably not my last time either.
“Yeah, it’s tough.”