TORONTO - Plenty has changed for Mike Komisarek.
Bought out by the Toronto Maple Leafs, he's no longer a big-money defenceman whose production didn't match his salary. Instead, he's getting close to the veteran minimum with the Carolina Hurricanes.
But some things remain the same, as Komisarek hasn't been a regular in the Hurricanes' lineup. Coach Kirk Muller is taking the slow approach with the 31-year-old, who has played in just one game so far this season.
"We talked about it, and I said: "'Listen, this is not a two-, three-, four-game process. What you do in our locker-room, your experience and (being) a great team guy is really helpful for us with a lot of young guys,'" Muller said. "And I said to Mike, 'You're going to pop in, and we're going to build that confidence back up and get your game going.'"
Muller talked of rebuilding Komisarek's confidence after a season in which he played more games for the Marlies of the AHL (seven) than the Leafs (four). Komisarek enjoyed three of his better NHL seasons with the Montreal Canadiens when Muller was an assistant, so the Hurricanes coach knows he's seen the "best" the veteran defenceman can do.
Komisarek hasn't really had the chance to show it in Carolina, yet he remains in good spirits.
"It's a fresh start, a new environment, the culture like that is good," he said. "I've been fortunate enough to have a coaching staff that is eager to work with me, help me through, help me find my game and help me get back playing the way I can. It's been genuine. There's a good trust there."
That's not to say trust was lacking with the Leafs, and Komisarek didn't have anything negative to say about the organization that signed him to a US$22.5-million, five-year deal in 2009. He played just 158 games over four seasons with two goals and 17 assists.
In the off-season, Toronto used one of its compliance buyouts to get out of the final year of Komisarek's deal that was set to pay him $3.5 million and count $4.5 million under the salary cap. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, sending him to the minors only would have saved the Leafs $925,000, which is something they're already doing with defenceman John-Michael Liles.
"That's the business side of the game that obviously is a tough one with the salary cap and teams juggling dollars," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. "It's become a lot more involved in day-to-day managing of teams, I guess you could say. That's why the management, they make decisions, a lot of the time it comes down to dollars when you're a team that's up against the cap. It's unfortunate when that happens."
But Phaneuf talked to Komisarek over the summer and was glad to see his former teammate find a landing spot in Carolina.
And it's not like the Hurricanes had any delusions of grandeur with Komisarek. General manager Jim Rutherford said upon signing him to a $700,000, one-year deal that "Mike faced different circumstances and expectations in Toronto than he will in Carolina, and we feel that he has a better chance to succeed with our team."
That remains to be seen. Muller decided Thursday night's game in Toronto wasn't the best opportunity for Komisarek to return to the lineup, but that doesn't mean he's unhappy to have him around.
"We feel very comfortable with where he's at," Muller said. "It's building blocks with him, his confidence. His last game he played well, you've got to look at the big picture as a team or a group right now. Mike's going to get back in."
Meanwhile, he has been spending extra time on the ice on game days to stay in shape. And in the locker-room, the Hurricanes have another experienced player to lean on.
"I think it's difficult for anybody coming to a new team and a new situation, but for him, he's kept a positive attitude, he's worked hard in practice," captain Eric Staal said. "He's ready to go when called upon, and when he did come in one game he played real well, real solid for us. I think as we go and as the year goes on, he'll feel more and more comfortable and fit into a good role with this group.
"I think he's getting there. It's been good to have him."