Everyone is really angry at Leo Komarov right now. Any trip to Twitter will show you epic levels of snark where people are just so upset at his ice time and point production, they can barely contain themselves — not so angry, however, they won’t take time to pick convenient endpoints for the stats they post or head to the all-situations ice time charts because they look worse. Komarov gets his empty net goals deducted from his meagre points totals when no one else does, and his place on the power play is an even bigger outrage, and never mind that without the injury to Auston Matthews, he’d never be there.
All that is fun, I guess, but I always think if you need to work that hard to make your point, maybe your point isn’t so sharp. Let’s find out what all the results, in context, can tell us about Komarov. Is he the most surplus to requirements winger, like I said in a fit of annoyance? Or have we set unreasonable expectations for a player no one should ever think is there to score goals?
Last year in February, I looked at Komarov’s season and discussed then his defensive contributions and how they weigh against his offensive shortcomings. My conclusion was, like it always is, that you don’t move someone out who is providing value until you have their replacement ready. But is he still providing value and is there a replacement if he’s not?
Last year, I showed that Komarov’s usage had changed a lot. He had been moved right off the power play and onto the penalty kill exclusively, with an overall all-situations ice time that had remained fairly constant.
By the end of last year, Komarov was second in all-situations ice time (for forwards from here on in, unless otherwise specified), behind Auston Matthews. For most of the year, he was either second or third, with Tyler Bozak in there sometimes ahead of him. So in terms of those scary all-situations minutes, that’s not a change.
Breaking this down, last year he was second in penalty kill minutes to Zach Hyman, and sixth in power play minutes, ahead of only Connor Brown for regular roster players who weren’t the fourth liners.
This year looks like this (From Natural Stat Trick):
What we see is a similar pattern to last year: mostly PK time, very little PP time, with exceptions for when a regular power-play forward is out of the lineup. Komarov has become the seventh forward for power play usage. The overall five-on-five usage is fairly consistent, but it seems like the more recent time on the power play hasn’t been offset with less even strength play the way it was early in the year. Let’s ask why that might be.
Rather than phrase it as “Babcock’s most trusted forward” or some other idea that implies that it’s all about him as an individual, instead consider that in recent road games where the Nazem Kadri line has been used heavily in an attempt to shut down the opposition, and where the Leafs don’t have last change, Komarov ends up with more minutes. That won’t fit on a tweet, to be fair.
So rather than say that Babcock has been setting out to play Komarov more, the reality is he’s being used, somewhat indirectly, to make up the slack with Matthews out of the lineup. I suppose I could say he’s replaced Matthews on the power play if I wanted to stir things up, but that’s not really true. He’s the next man up at the bottom end. Perhaps you as a fan want to see Josh Leivo or Kasperi Kapanen in that role instead, and in the case of Leivo, that has happened. In the case of Kapanen, he’s played on some other team all year. It’s not shocking he didn’t immediately get power play time on the Leafs.
Much more meaningful is the increase in shutdown line duties for Komarov at five-on-five with Matthews out, and in general as the Leafs have been struggling defensively. Komarov isn’t on this team to score goals. He’s there to make the Kadri line succeed at shutting down the toughest opposition lines.
Leo Komarov is a Defenceman
I said this once, that Komarov is like a defenceman who plays as a forward, and it’s sort of true.
The vertical axis is shooting percentage (Corsi Shooting Percentage, in fact), and the horizontal axis is as it says, the share of total shots (Corsi or all shots) taken while the player is on the ice.
You see that Komarov is in with the defencemen. Last year, his shooting percentage was higher, and he was up by Bozak, who is right where he usually is in terms of not shooting much or very well. Bozak is busy passing to excellent shooters, though, while Komarov is busy hitting and playing net-front. He might also be doing the sort of defensive play that Zach Hyman excels at: retrieving the puck, keeping it alive offensively, and getting control in the defensive zone. This doesn’t tell us that, but in terms of shooting, having Komarov on a line is as useful as having three defencemen on the ice.
You should be able to see the flaw in that plan right here on this chart. You might get better defensive results, but defenders don’t shoot much or very well, so running two forwards and three defenders means those two forwards had better be exceptional or you’re never going to generate enough goals. Patrick Marleau and Kadri, Komarov’s usual linemates, are smushed in there together with Matthews and van Riemsdyk. So, that is a lot of offence from two guys, and this can be a plausible lineup choice. If you sub in Nylander for Marleau, you don’t lose on shot volume, but you do pick up the worst shooting percentage for a regular forward on the team.
So, while it’s a plausible arrangement if it works defensively, does it actually help the goalies keep pucks out of the net?
First, a note about the competition Komarov faces. There is a very distinct pattern to the line matching used by the Leafs. The fourth line is kept away from the top pair of opposition defenders, and the Matthews line makes up that slack. The Bozak line and the fourth line are kept away from the top line of opposition forwards and the Kadri line makes up that slack. Komarov, then, plays disproportionally against the best forwards in the league, but a very even rotation of defenders.
This year, Komarov has played almost all of his minutes with Kadri, so I’m slicing off his time on odd lines that happen post power play or because of line changes, and I’m just looking at his regular minutes. (This actually does him a favour, as his results away from Kadri are worse.)
Leo Komarov with Nazem Kadri five-on-five
Last year’s barely even result looked as good if you looked at Expected Goals, which weights all those shots for and against by location and type. But this line has now moved well away from last year’s shot volume, and are spending a lot more time hemmed in defensively as a result.
Komarov’s on-ice Expected Goals For percentage last year was 50.1, this year it is 46.7. So he and his linemates are not mitigating their bad shot differential with quality.
In terms of quality and rate of shots for, Komarov is participating in play more like what the fourth line produces than the top nine (judging by his xGF relative to his team).
On the other side of the equation, the shots against, this becomes more complex. This year, the members of the Bozak line are tops in Relative Expected GA60. This is achieved in part through careful usage, but after them, you get the fourth line, and then Kadri’s line with Matthews’ line last, worst in other words.
This was broadly true last year, but Kadri’s line are worse than they were as are the Matthews’ line. The trouble in paradise is coming from both of the top lines who have show deteriorating quality of results in the defensive zone.
It seems like it might be valuable to break this down a little by lines instead of just looking at individual players’ relative on-ice results. How has Kadri’s line deteriorated from last season in expected goals?
Leo Komarov and Nazem Kadri in four versions
These are the four main versions of the Kadri shutdown line. Note that this year’s Nylander version has the least amount of minutes, less than 100, and should have a bit of salt shaken over it.
The big surprise here, though, is that even with the very poor CF%, this year with Marleau, that version still holds their own in xGF%. They don’t with Nylander, and it’s clear that he just doesn’t fit on this line, used in this way. It seems like Babcock agrees because he doesn’t use the Nylander version as much this year.
The intensely low offensive quality with that Nylander version this year is very troubling. Add to that Nylander’s really poor shooting percentage this season, and there really is no point in ever putting those three players together on the ice. Although, they draw more penalties when Nylander is there.
If Matthews is in the lineup and Marleau isn’t off trying to centre his own hybrid shutdown/scoring line, then the Kadri line is not bad, but they still have a CA60 of 62.4, which is very poor even for the Leafs, and they take a lot of penalties, more than they draw.
There is no way to see this as anything but a deterioration in the defensive performance of this line, which was only just barely good enough to start with.
But is that all Komarov? Isn’t it tempting to say that? It’s tempting to look at all of those numbers and just ask why not a Marleau - Kadri - Brown line and get Nylander back with Matthews where the competition is a little easier and their defensive weaknesses are offset by offensive brilliance. There is no evidence to prove that would work, however, all temptations to believe it aside. There is no evidence that we are seeing anything other than competition that now plays the Leafs a lot harder.
Some small things that turned up as I looked at all of this: The Matthews line is worse by xGA measures this season over last as well, and at some point, we have to start asking how much of that is the defender performance. Matt Hunwick had very good success on the ice with Kadri and Komarov last year. This year’s number two, Ron Hainsey, is also better than the other defenders with them, but not getting anything like last year’s good results.
I was surprised at how plausible Komarov looks this year if you don’t play him with Nylander. I was very surprised at how badly Nylander is performing defensively this season with any line, but the lack of fit offensively with Kadri is not a big shock, neither of them are shooting very close in, so together with Komarov covering the net, they end up being less than the sum of their parts.
I think some of the Kadri line’s issues are caused by changes in defensive deployment, and the performance of Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev has to be considered as another contributing factor.
Aside from the defensive issues, the drop in offensive pace for Kadri and Komarov, even with the Marleau version on the ice, is the biggest worry. With Frederik Andersen playing above average and Matthews back in the lineup, all the Leafs need is for the power play to start clicking and everyone will forget their moment of rage over Komarov. But Kadri is a top offensive centre in the NHL, and he’s getting a lot fewer looks at the opposing net this year.
The truth is someone has to play the top lines in the NHL, and that isn’t yet in Auston Matthews’ range of ability all of the time. But the difference between what the Leafs are this year, and what they need to be to really be a top team is not a large gap, but some of that gap is made up of all the goals Nazem Kadri never gets a chance to score, and all the shots against that he is on the ice for. And some of that is Leo Komarov’s responsibility.
There isn’t a certain replacement for Komarov on this team even if it looks like Brown (who has some pretty bad xGA results too) might be no worse.
At the very least, keep Nylander out of the shutdown business. It’s not a crime that it doesn’t seem to suit him. But beyond that, this is not cutting it anymore: