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The Grabovski Factor

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There has been extensive and rampant debate, spanning almost two full seasons, on the value of one Mikhail Grabovski.  I personally have had more than a few pleasant debates in the comments section of MLHS specifically regarding this player and his skill sets.  Oddly enough, even now, when his contributions border on the insanely obvious, Grabovski’s name is often overlooked when discussing the reasons for the Leafs early success.  I know and understand that many on this site, including the more prominent bloggers, are not fans of Mr Grabovski’s game.  I am here to ask you all to take another look.

Coming over to the NHL from Europe, at the age of 22, Grabovski was buried in a Montreal system thought, at the time, to be deep in blue chip prospects.  Although completely dominant at the AHL level, he was given very limited opportunity at the NHL level.  Some sort of generational family feud with the Kostitsyn brothers in Montreal, coupled with some fairly immature behaviour on Grabovski’s part – his days became numbered in Montreal.  First offered up to Toronto as part of a proposed Mats Sundin trade (which obviously never materialized), and then later ultimately traded to Toronto in transactions which included a 2nd round pick, a depth prospect and sole negotiating rights to Montreal for Mats Sundin, Grabovski ended up in Toronto.

Grabovski arrived in Toronto as an unknown, a rookie by definition, 24 years old (a pure vintage as far as prospects go) on a team well into its rebuild and youth movement.  Playing mostly with other rookies, or established players with marginal top end potential, he potted 20 goals in his first full season in the NHL.  Ignoring his obvious offensive skill and capabilities, he was immediately labeled a “soft” player and a defensive liability by the followers of the Maple Leafs.

Brian Burke recognized the obvious skill set and potential here, and inked Grabovski to a fairly generous 3 year deal, which was apparently influenced by expected and anticipated future performance metrics.  The thinking here was to overpay slightly for today but garner value in the later stages of the contract.  With the acquisition of Bozak, and the drafting of Kadri, it was also likely expected that Grabovski would become excellent trade bait near the end of his contract if Bozak and Kadri were able to establish themselves as bonafide centermen in the NHL.

Grabovski’s 2nd year in the NHL can almost be categorized as a typical sophomore “slump” season.  Except, that really was not the case.  His focus shifted to becoming a more complete player.  His abilities in the face off circle improved exponentially and he also managed to finish the season as the only Leafs forward with a positive +/- statistic.  I have always been one to argue that the +/- statistic is essentially a valueless stat.  Having said this, the stat works very very well in 2 specific scenarios, and really, is all revealing in these scenarios.  A player on a poor team, with a good +/- is an excellent indicator of that players worth.  Conversely, a player with a poor +/- on a very good team, is just as indicative.  Considering the injury shortened season, the improvement in face off percentage and the obvious improvement in 2 way play, I am quite hesitant to label Grabovski year 2 as a “sophomore slump”.  Rather, I like to think of his second season as a development year – especially when coupled with the fact that he managed to dramatically improve his overall level of play, while maintaining a practically identical PPG pace.

Watching Grabovski in year 3 has been absolutely inspiring.  The man is possessed.  With the exception of one tough game in the face off circle against Montreal, he has been consistently over 60% on the draws, he has a point in all but one game (thanks to a brilliant save by king Henrik), is a strong plus player and has been absolutely dominant for portions of each and every game.

The obvious hero so far this season has been the surprising MacArthur.  I urge everyone though to watch the play of Grabovski.  MacArthur would not have 5 goals today if not for the play of Grabovski.  We are watching the evolution of a very skilled, very aggressive hockey player here.  He has learned to play both ends of the ice, he has learned how to utilize his wingers better, and he is continually learning that very few teams have an answer for his speed and creativity – especially when the oppositions focus is firmly planted on the Bozak and Kessel line.  Grabovski IS the source of the secondary scoring the Leafs have been so desperately lacking for the last 5-6 years.  60-70 points is not out of the question for Grabovski this year, and his wing mates are certainly along for the ride.  The unsung hero award, at least from me, goes to Grabovski.

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