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Watling: Komarov Surprisingly Effective on Top Line, Despite Need for More Talent

After the injury to Anders Lee, it took some line shuffling, but head coach Barry Trotz seems to have settled on Leo Komarov playing on the top line alongside Mat Barzal and Jordan Eberle. While fans – myself included – loathe the decision,  Komarov has not hindered the line’s play since jumping on the top line.

Before I get into the numbers, let me just say this:

the Islanders should look for a big-time winger before the deadline.

I have said numerous times that I love how Taylor Hall would fit on the top line. Despite this, since Komarov landed on the top line seven games ago, he has surprised me.

“It’s been nice playing with those guys,” Komarov said. “I’m just trying to keep it simple, give the puck to those guys. Stay in front of the net.”

Komarov has been a Lee-lite player, contributing in a far lesser manner but playing a similar style. While Komarov has shown up on the score sheet just twice with two assists, he has been effective on the ice. Somehow Komarov is top three on the Islanders in expected goals, according to Natural Stat Trick, with a rate of 66.05%. While this is most likely a product of playing on the top line, it is impressive he has not completely tanked the line’s offensive production.

It is incredibly ironic that I am supporting Komarov, given my strong dislike for his contract and play over the last few seasons. He is not a good player. He is not a first liner, however, right now he is not hurting the team.

His play compliments Barzal to some extent, he can grind along the boards to pry the puck away from defenders and onto the stick of Barzal. His size is important for a line that boasts two undersized skaters and can create a net-front presence similar to that of the captain.

One thing that really worries me is his skating. Komarov should not be carrying the puck through the neutral zone when the Isles have one of the best puck carriers in Barzal. Every time he chases an opposing puck carrier, I tense up, waiting for a hooking penalty. However, Komarov has shown some flashes.

A shocking revelation when digging into the numbers was how the Barzal line has played with and without Komarov. In 76:40 time on ice with Komarov, Barzal’s line has a 69.7% expected goal rate and a positive puck possession number. I find it surprising in the sense that the Islanders have not surrendered a single goal in that time, while Barzal has been on the ice for 20 goals against in 508 minutes without Komarov. Now is this due to the smaller sample size? That is certainly possible, however, we ought to give credit to Komarov for bringing a defense-first aspect to this line that Lee just could not do.

On the flip side of the argument, should a top-line be this defensive? It sounds crazy, but Barzal’s job is not to stop goals, it is to score them. If the line starts to drop in productivity, it does not matter how well it plays defensively, the job of any top line in the NHL is to score. The Islanders ought to leave the defense to the third and fourth lines. Let J.G. Pageau and Casey Cizikas go up against the Sidney Crosbys and Artemi Panarin’s of the world, not Barzal.

One final thing that has been really interesting to see over these last few games is Trotz’s deployment of Komarov. He is second on the team in offensive zone faceoff percentage at 63%, meaning 63% of the time, Komarov starts his shifts in the offensive zone. This is crazy to even comprehend, given how poorly Komarov produces. It would be interesting to see Trotz throw Pageau on the wing or another skater, perhaps Casey Cizikas or Matt Martin who have been producing a lot recently, that can play in the corners like Komarov while still providing a bit more of an offensive punch.

While Komarov has not played poorly riding shotgun to Barzal, general manager Lou Lamoriello must consider improving the line, giving Barzal a better winger to help him and Eberle carry the load offensively.

 

 

Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattWatling99

 

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