Injuries create opportunities.
It's one of those old clichés in professional sports, but one that certainly applies right now to the Toronto Maple Leafs given the absence of captain Dion Phaneuf.
And the opportunity appears to be all Mike Komisarek's.
Prior to Phaneuf suffering a deep skate cut to his leg on Tuesday, Komisarek had been limited to playing on the Leafs' third defence pairing, averaging less than 14 minutes ice time a game despite earning $6-million (U.S.) this season.
Without Phaneuf in the lineup, however, he took on a starring role.
Playing in the Leafs' top four for the first time this season, Komisarek logged the second most ice time on his team (26 minutes) in Wednesday's 5-4 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals. The highlight for the big defenceman was when he made a pretty lead pass to set up teammate Kris Versteeg's breakaway goal, which tied the game in the third period.
Komisarek also finished plus-1 in the game despite regularly facing Washington's top guns. As Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau shifted around his lineup to get Alex Ovechkin away from Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn, the pairing of Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin was up against Alex the Great for roughly half of his ice time.
It wasn't a perfect outing, as he was on the ice for two goals against, but given how trying his tenure has been in Toronto, it may well have been Komisarek's best game as a Leaf.
"A lot of gutsy performances by everyone," Versteeg said. "Guys stepping up, like Komo."
The time frame for Phaneuf's recovery means he'll likely miss anywhere from 12 to 20 games, enough time for Komisarek to show what, exactly, he can bring to the table. Still only 28 years old, he is the highest paid unrestricted free agent Leafs GM Brian Burke has signed in his two years in Toronto but has yet to live up to that contract due to a debilitating shoulder issue that ended his season after 34 games a year ago.
With a $4.5-million salary cap hit and three seasons after this one left on his deal, most would assume the Leafs are looking for Komisarek to be more than the league's highest paid fifth defenceman over the coming years.
How exactly he'll get out of that role - barring further injuries - isn't clear.
For one, Schenn's development into a top pairing, shutdown defender so far this season has pushed Komisarek out of the top four and some minutes on the penalty kill. And if Burke re-signs Tomas Kaberle (or adds another puck-moving defenceman) next summer, Toronto's top four appears set, with Komisarek the apparent odd-man out.
Asked about his client's limited role prior to Phaneuf's injury and potentially down the line, however, Komisarek's long-time agent Matt Keator said he didn't view it as a problem.
"He's like any player: The more you play, the more comfortable you are playing," Keator said on Thursday. "But you know, if they asked him to play five minutes or 25 minutes, it's not going to matter to Mike. He'll come to play.
"I watched the game last night, I thought he played great. A few games before that, he played 14 minutes and he was the second star. His game's coming around. He'll be fine."
Keator added that Komisarek has no complaints about playing in Toronto, despite the spotlight and playing with a contract many defensive defencemen would find difficult to live up to.
"There are reasons why we chose Toronto," Keator said. "Mike's really happy there. It's been a great fit for him.
"And regardless of his ice time, he's going to show up with a good attitude and work hard. That's the way he is. That's part of his value. When you sign a guy, you don't just get what he does on the ice but what he does off the ice, too."
For at least the next four to six weeks, a span that could sink the Leafs' season, they'll need him to deliver in both areas. Toronto's defensive depth is up for its first real test, and how Komisarek fares will likely decide if it's a pass or fail.