Mike Comrie(notes) didn’t need the money. The son of furniture magnate Bill Comrie, the husband of entertainer Hilary Duff and a nine-year NHL veteran with plenty of his own cash, Comrie needed the opportunity.
He had bounced all over the NHL and back again – going from the Edmonton Oilers to the Philadelphia Flyers to the Phoenix Coyotes to the Ottawa Senators to the New York Islanders, then to the Senators for a second tour, then to the Oilers once more. He had been part of contract squabbles, trades and free-agent signings. He had battled illness and injury. He had made one Stanley Cup run, advancing to the final with the Sens in 2007, but otherwise had never come close.
“For me,” Comrie said, “it was more about coming to a team that had a chance to compete.”
For the Pittsburgh Penguins, it might turn out be the bargain of the NHL offseason. They signed Comrie to a one-year, $500,000 contract, and already he has shown the potential to put up big numbers for one of the NHL's top Cup contenders. He scored a team-leading four goals in four preseason games and added an assist, mostly centering a line with winger Evgeni Malkin(notes) on his right side.
“Mike is an extremely smart and intelligent hockey player,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma told reporters after Comrie scored twice Sunday in a 5-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings. “I wanted to give him a chance to read off of Geno. That was my initial thought. They have shown some chemistry that seems to just keep getting better.”
Comrie, 30, was interested in coming to Detroit. His skills and smarts seemed well-suited for the Wings’ puck-possession style, and he was familiar with the area, having spent two years at the University of Michigan. But when the Wings signed Mike Modano(notes) on Aug. 6 to center their third line and pump up their second power play unit, they had no room for Comrie.
“I talked to a few teams,” Comrie said. “But this team was definitely one where I hoped I could come in and be a guy that the team could count on.”
Penguins GM Ray Shero told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Comrie didn’t become a possibility until “sometime in August.” Even then, Shero and his staff didn’t jump at the chance. They considered other options, then finally signed Comrie at a rock-bottom price on Sept. 3.
It was a low-risk, high-reward move. At worst, Comrie doesn’t pan out, and the Penguins are out only half-a-million bucks. At best, Comrie clicks with the likes of Malkin and Sidney Crosby(notes), contributes on the power play and rediscovers his scoring touch. Comrie’s numbers have slipped in recent years, but he has produced as many as 30 goals and 60 points twice in his career.
About 10 minutes after he got off the phone with Shero, Comrie received a call from Crosby.
“It just goes to show you the attitude here and the leadership,” Comrie said. “It’s a young group of players, but it’s a mature group. It’s businesslike at the rink.”
The immediate speculation was that Comrie would play the wing on Crosby’s line, and the question was whether he could become the long-term soul/linemate Crosby has lacked. Malkin was supposed to move to the wing on Jordan Staal’s(notes) line, giving the Penguins an even more potent top-six.
But with a foot problem sidelining Staal for the preseason and the start of the regular season, Comrie ended up centering Malkin. He felt comfortable with the Russian superstar right away.
“He’s a quiet guy, but his actions speak loud on the ice,” said Comrie the morning of Sept. 22, his preseason debut. “He makes plays that most players can’t make. I’ve learned early in just a couple ice sessions that the thing with him is, you give him the puck and you get open. He’ll find you.”
Comrie made an immediate impact Sept. 22, scoring the first goal at Pittsburgh’s brand-new Consol Energy Center in a 5-1 victory over the Red Wings. And he closed out the preseason with two goals in Detroit on Sunday.
If Comrie continues to play with Malkin, he could hardly find himself in a better situation. He isn’t the only hungry player eager to prove himself. After battling with an injured shoulder last season and posting career lows in games (67), goals (28), assists (49) and points (77), Malkin is healthy and looking to return to top form.
“It’s not like he had a bad year,” Crosby said. “He probably didn’t have the year he wanted to, and that would be something you’d have to talk to him about. But he’s competitive. He has high expectations of himself. He knows there’s a lot of pressure on him.”
Asked how he felt, Malkin smiled and said: “I feel great. We have a good team, and we see how I play this year. I think I’m ready.”
Uh-oh, NHL. This is a guy who already has won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s scoring leader and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player, and who also is a two-time runner-up to the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin(notes) for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
“It’s about a mentality of bringing that every night and playing his game every night and being a dominating force without the puck and with the puck,” Bylsma said. “When Geno brings that every night, he’s a force – and he’s an MVP force.”
If Staal returns to center Malkin, well, Comrie could end up on Crosby’s wing – a little better than a consolation prize. Crosby has a Hart and an Art Ross in his trophy collection, along with a Rocket Richard Trophy as the league goal-scoring champion.
Asked about the possibility of playing with Crosby, Comrie rolled his eyes toward Sid the Kid’s seat in the dressing room and grinned like Comrie the Kid.
“Aww, I mean, any player would probably tell you the same answer,” Comrie said. “It’s the coaching staff’s decision where they want to slot guys in. But when you get a chance to play with a couple of these players who think the game at an elite level, it definitely is something that I’m sure most players in the league would want.”