TORONTO - A month before his first training camp as a Maple Leaf, Mike Komisarek was bouncing around at the U.S. Olympic Orientation camp, all smiles, all confident, all but certain he had a spot on the Olympic team, feverishly excited about beginning his new hockey life in Toronto.
It was all boyish beaming then, questions and frustrations now.
What happened to the Mike Komisarek that the Leafs invested $22.5 million in, which at the time represented the largest and longest contract given to any Toronto player by Brian Burke?
What happened to him?
ďI wish I knew the answer completely,Ē said Guy Carbonneau, who coached Komisarek when he played his best hockey with the Montreal Canadiens. ďHeís a good guy who cares and he hates to lose. I feel for him.
ďEarly on, when I got the job (in Montreal) we worked with him a lot about not trying to be too aggressive. For some players to play better, they have to do more. With Mike, he has to do less. We worked on that with him. Sometimes he wanted to do everything, make the big hits, change the game, but heíd put himself out of the play to do it. We worked a lot on staying in the middle instead of chasing the game. When he did that, he was a very good defenceman for us.Ē
But now, maybe a loss of confidence, maybe a lack of belief from the coaching staff, maybe it has been Komisarekís inability to settle down on the ice. When he plays, itís fifth or sixth defenceman ice, which is difficult to swallow when he is being paid first or second defenceman money.
That is the incongruity today that every pro athlete must face. Once upon a time, players were booed because they were perceived to be not good enough. Today, they get booed because they donít live up to the salary they were signed for.
ďI think that weighs on you,Ē said Carbonneau. ďI donít know if the player has to take responsibility for that, but I think the team does. Sometimes, you see someone on another team who might be a 3-or-4 defenceman and you envision he can be a 1-or-2 for us. So you sign the guy thinking that heíll do something different for your team than he did for other teams. You expect him to be a Wayne Gretzky or a Raymond Bourque but you find out they canít. Then the guy tries to do too much. Making good money is hard. You try to show the people you deserve that. You try to do too much instead of showing the reason why they signed you. Itís not always the players fault.
ďA guy like Chris Pronger can manage all those demands and all those minutes. Not everybody else can.Ē
The minutes Komisarek now plays with the Leafs are the least he has played since his rookie season. He is trapped in the conundrum all struggling players find themselves in. To play more, he needs to play better and maybe to play better, he needs to play more. Komisarek isnít about to argue about the lot he finds himself in. When asked why it hasnít worked out better and why he doesnít play more minutes, he said: ďThatís determined by the guy in the mirror. You look in the mirror and you get the answers.
ďAt the end of the day, you canít get too down on yourself. Itís not my nature. This is where I want to be and I still want to be here. I want to win here.
ďI donít think Iíve played my best hockey and my ice time is reflective of that. I donít point the blame at the coaches or anyone else or make excuses. I have to be better. I have to earn that trust and show that I can be put out there in every situation. I donít hold any resentment or grudge. Iíve talked with (Ron Wilson) enough. Iíve had communication with him. I donít go in there pissed off or anything like that. The ice time is earned, not given. I understand that.
ďYou have to build that trust and confidence with the coaches. You have to have it with them. They have to have it with you. I feel thatís something Iím still trying to earn from Wilson. What can I do better? What can I do more? Thatís the way itís been.Ē
The trust was there between Komisarek and Carbonneau in Montreal, when Komisarek was partnered with the unappreciated star, Andrei Markov. In one year with the Canadiens, Komisarek was statistically cutting edge. In 2007-08, he led all defenceman in the NHL in hits and also was the runaway leader in blocked shots. It was that kind of 20-plus minute physical warrior the Leafs thought they were signing as a free agent.
Last season didnít start well for the Leafs or for Komisarek. This one isnít finishing well for him, even if it may be for the team. Komisarek ranks 29th in the NHL in hits among defencemen and 69th in blocked shots, his former speciality.
Under normal business circumstances, the Leafs would have a decision to make at the end of the season: Do they keep Komisarek, and continue to pay top defenceman money for a third-pair defender? Or do they buy out the final three years of his contract?
A buy-out would cost the Leafs $1.38 million a year against the salary cap for the next six seasons: The cap hit now is $4.5 million a year and Komisarek has 12.5 million coming to him the next three seasons. Some general managers would go that route, but Burke isnít one of them.
ďNo chance,Ē said Burke, when asked about a possible buy-out. ďWe love what he adds from a character standpoint. His play has improved and we think that it can and will continue.Ē
To spend time with Komisarek, it is easy to understand Burkeís faith in him. He is an engaging individual who can light up a dressing room by his mere presence and is clearly one of the more mature members of a very young hockey team. To know him is to like him and to believe in him, which makes the past two seasons all the more difficult to comprehend. Yes, there have been injury problems, but in between the hockey hasnít met anyoneís expectations.
ďI know I havenít played my best but this is long from being over,Ē said Komisarek. ďI know my best is yet to come. I firmly believe we are going to win here and I like the direction weíre heading in. I want to be part of that. I believe in myself and I believe in whatís happening here.Ē
He also agrees with his former coach, Carbonneau, that less in his case can mean more.
ďThe start of last season was a perfect example,Ē said Komisarek. ďYou come in and try to turn things around in one day. You try to do too much and take it all on yourself. A lot of times, like Carbo said, you simplify things, worry about what you can control and you can do. Carbo was awesome. He was really good for me. I earned trust and confidence in him and he showed the same with me. Thatís what Iím working towards here. Wilson is a great coach. I have to earn that ice time and that trust with him.Ē
Said Carbonneau: ďThis has been hard on Mike. Everybody has pride and ego. Iím sure he feels like heís failing his teammates and heís failing the club and for someone like him, he would take that personally. Heís a really proud guy. You donít need to push him to work. You donít worry about him that way. Heís a pro and heíll get through this. Iím sure of it.Ē