From the first day of the Montreal Canadiens training camp, it seemed like was only a matter of time before hulking defenceman Mike Komisarek would pack his bags and head for the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League.
Heading into training camp behind a deep, if unspectacular, group of veteran defencemen, Monday’s announcement of his assignment to the Canadiens’ affiliate in Hamilton came as no surprise. However, his current position on those same depth charts should be the silver lining Komisarek needs to motivate the continued improvement he displayed during the exhibition schedule.
Partly through his own mature style of game, and partly due to the weeding-out process of the waiver draft, Komisarek should find himself the first defensive call-up to the National Hockey League in case of injury. Undersized, but effective, defencemen Stephane Robidas and Francis Bouillon were both claimed in the annual waiver draft, eventually ending up in Dallas and Nashville respectively. The recent surgery to Sheldon Souray’s troublesome wrist, also helped clear a path for Komisarek.
For his part, Komisarek knew cracking the squad out of camp wouldn’t be an easy one, which should help him take the demotion in stride and continue his adjustment to the pros.
“There’s such an adjustment from the college game to the pro game and very few defencemen jump in straight from college to the NHL,” said Komisarek, in an interview before he headed to training camp.
“Some people have told me that it (playing in the AHL) would probably be the best thing for me,” he added.
“I’m still young and I know I have a lot of things to learn and playing 20-25 minutes a game in Hamilton probably wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
Komisarek’s mind was set on forcing the Canadiens to find room for him on their opening day roster, but the exceptional play of fellow prospect and former first-rounder Ron Hainsey left him on the outside looking in. Hainsey was the best puck-moving defenceman in camp for the Canadiens, potting three goals and four assists in his eight games and adeptly quarterbacking the powerplay.
Hainsey was in Komisarek’s position last year, attempting to adjust his game from U.S. college hockey to land a spot in the NHL, but looks back at his demotion now as a good learning experience.
“Looking back at it, it was something I needed,” Hainsey told the Montreal Gazette.
“When you play college hockey, you play 35,36 games, and suddenly you’re playing twice as many games and traveling all over the place by bus,” he added. “I know I hit the wall late last season in Quebec.”
Montreal can only hope that the same positive experience and adjustment will happen with Komisarek, a budding physical blueliner who will be learning to pick his spots and not wear himself down over a lengthy schedule in the AHL. A season in Hamilton should also give the young blueliner a chance to further develop the offensive side of his game.
Komisarek made great strides with his offensive game in his second year at the University of Michigan, almost doubling his point total from 16 in 41 games during his rookie season to 30 points in 40 games in his sophomore year. Though he admits his first instinct is to the defensive side of the game, Komisarek will be able to take more chances with the puck in the AHL than he would in the NHL.
“(Offence) comes with confidence,” said the 6-foor-4, 240-pound Komisarek. “You build confidence (by) taking more risks. You try different things and make mistakes, but you’re going to learn from those mistakes.
“If I see a spot where I can jump into the rush and contribute, I will. It’s harder to score goals, so I think you’re seeing more defencemen pick their spots and jump in and that’s something I’m learning.”
Claude Julien, the man trusted with the development of Montreal’s prospects in the AHL as coach of the Bulldogs, had been drooling over the possibility of icing a defence-pair of Komisarek and Hainsey in Hamilton. Julien says he would’ve received both players with “open arms if they ended up in Hamilton,” but is likely satisfied with having Komisarek.
“He’s very impressive,” said Julien, who put the Canadiens prospects through the paces at a rookie tournament in Hull, Quebec. “The fact is, when you make that next step to the NHL, it’s a lot quicker. But I think with his mobility and his foot quickness, to go along with his size and strength, it makes him a no-miss kind of candidate. The question now on Mike Komisarek is not if, but when he’ll make that jump, and I think he’s pretty close to making it.”
Now, with a clearer path to the NHL, Komisarek is closer than ever.