By Michael Smith
Raleigh, NC July 5, 2013 – At the outset of free agency in 2009, Mike Komisarek landed in Toronto after six years with the Montreal Canadiens, the team that drafted him seventh overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.
He signed a five-year, $22.5 million dollar deal and was the Maple Leafs’ high-profile signing of the day.
“He was a high draft pick, he played very well in Montreal and he earned the right to get a big contract,” said Jim Rutherford, the Canes president and general manager. “So, the expectations where he went to play were very, very high.”
Four years and four days later, Komisarek was snatched up on the opening day of free agency, this time by the Carolina Hurricanes on a one-year, $700,000 deal.
A vastly different scenario, for sure.
“This is my second experience with the whole free agency thing, and I can definitely say that this was a lot more enjoyable going through it,” Komisarek said on a Friday conference call. “It wasn’t as hectic or crazy.”
Komisarek became an unrestricted free agent after Toronto exercised one of its two compliance buyouts on the 31-year-old defenseman earlier this week. The West Islip, NY, native logged just four games with the Leafs in 2012-13, adding seven with the Marlies of the American Hockey League.
It was the end of a tumultuous road of four seasons that, for whatever reason – injuries, unattainable expectations or otherwise – just didn’t pan out.
“The best way I can sum it up is that you sign a big contract, you come in there as a hot free agent and you want to change the world,” he said. “I didn’t get off on the right foot and never recovered from there. It just wasn’t working out, bottom line. We’re in a business of results and producing, and it didn’t happen.
“With that being said, you don’t complain and you don’t whine. You go to the rink to try to find solutions and be part of the answer.”
The answer was hard to come by. In 2009-10, the season after signing his five-year deal with Toronto, Komisarek suffered a shoulder injury, missing 48 games. His ice time was cut the following season, and he hadn’t been able to stake a role since.
That could change in Carolina, where he figures to slot in as a third-pair defenseman with Jay Harrison, who he’s met before. And the microscope isn’t as finely focused.
“Now he’s away from those expectations, and I’m sure he’s learned a lot from all those things he had to go through,” Rutherford said. “[His role here] gives him a much better chance to succeed.”
“I don’t think there will be that same sort of pressure and expectations, and you’re not under the microscope every day,” Komisarek said. “It’s going to do wonders for me, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
Inserting the 6-foot-4, 235-pound defenseman into the lineup, Komisarek edges Kevin Westgarth by a pound to become the heftiest player on the roster. The grit on the back-end, supplemented by Andrej Sekera’s 6-foot, 201-pound frame, is what the Hurricanes were looking to add in an effort to shore up the team defense.
He will also bring a veteran element to the Canes’ dressing room.
“He is really good with young players, and he will help our locker room,” Rutherford said.
An NHL All-Star starter in 2009 and U.S. Olympic team selection in 2010 (didn’t participate due to injury), Komisarek is already familiar with Canes head coach Kirk Muller, who was an assistant coach in Montreal for Komisarek’s last three seasons with the Habs.
“Kirky was a heart-and-soul guy. There’s no gray area with him,” Komisarek said. “You know exactly where you stand.”
In 2005-06, Komisarek and the Habs claimed the first two games of the Stanley Cup Playoff’s first round in Raleigh before the Canes won four straight to advance. The rest of that, of course, is history.
“You see how the city embraced the team and the players. It was such a great atmosphere,” Komisarek said. “I’ve always enjoyed coming down there. It’s a great city, a great place and a great environment.”
Having identified Carolina as an ideal career destination, once Komisarek learned of interest on the opposite side, there wasn’t much of a decision to be made.
It might not have been as flashy as July 1, 2009, but that’s just the way he wanted it.
“It was a no-brainer for me,” he said. “I thought this would be the best fit for myself and my family to go down there and get a fresh breath of air and a new opportunity to contribute, play and be part of a team that’s up-and-coming and a great organization.”