Others can be surprised Leo Komarov has settled into the role as left wing to top-line center Mathew Barzal heading into the Islanders’ first-round playoff series against the Penguins. Barry Trotz even might have been at one point, before the coach really got to appreciate how Komarov — a quintessential hockey pest — operates.
But not the man affectionately known as Uncle Leo.
"You know me," Komarov said after the Islanders practiced on Thursday at Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow. "I’m just fighting and trying to play my best game. I won’t be surprised. I’ve been playing hockey for 30 years. Just living another day. Wake up, enjoy the hockey and see how it goes."
There’s nothing fancy to Komarov’s game, no statistics that stand out or analytics that Trotz can cite as to why this has been the best fit for Barzal and Jordan Eberle since captain Anders Lee suffered a season-ending right knee injury on March 11.
It just is.
"He always plays with an edge," Trotz said. "He adjusts his game to who he plays with. When you put him in a checking role, he does a good job checking. When you put him on an offensive line like Barzy’s, he understands the balance of that. He doesn’t lose his character or his identity because he’s moved to a different line.
"It doesn’t matter where you play Leo. His game doesn’t change. He just adapts."
But Trotz had to be convinced.
He admitted in his first season with the Islanders he was unsure of president and general manager Lou Lamoriello’s thinking in signing Komarov away from the Maple Leafs — Lamoriello was that team’s GM from 2015-18 — to a four-year, $12 million deal.
"I didn’t know Leo well enough," Trotz said. "I didn’t know his game well enough. What you don’t understand is you can watch his game and you can get bits and pieces. But you have to be living the whole experience. You have to understand the intangibles he brings into the room, the intangibles he brings on the bench, the intangibles he brings on the ice and the value he has in pulling it all together.
"He’s committed and he’ll do anything to win. Those were qualities I didn’t know about as much. Lou did, because he had him in Toronto. Once you have Leo in the lineup, you realize all those things come together and it’s the value of the Leo experience that allows you to appreciate the value that he does bring."
Komarov had one goal and seven assists in 33 games and Trotz tried others on Barzal’s line, notably rookie Kieffer Bellows and newly-acquired Travis Zajac. But Trotz kept coming back to Komarov.
He is a key contributor to the NHL’s second-ranked penalty kill. And despite playing with an edge and looking to get under the skin of opponents particularly the Bruins’ Brad Marchand Ko,marov accumulated only 15 penalty minutes.
What Trotz sees and the statistics don’t show is how easily Komarov interacts with his teammates. The 34-year-old was born in Estonia, settled in Finland and played in the Russian KHL before joining the Maple Leafs in 2014. Trotz joked Komarov "knows about five or six languages, we just don’t know which ones."
"He’s the life of the room sometimes," defenseman Ryan Pulock said. "He’s really light in the room and easy to talk to and always gets the guys laughing. On the ice, he just does his job. It might not be pretty and he might not really get credit for what he does but he’s a really effective player for us."