Grabbo or let him go?

Grabbo or let him go?

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Photo: sportsnet.ca

On the Toronto Maple Leafs, no player has the combination of tenacity and skill that Mikhail Grabovski plays with each and every night.  First labeled as a peripheral playmaking center, Grabovski’s game has evolved to the point where he’s as competent finishing plays as he is setting them up, all while playing with zeal unmatched in the blue and white.  But moving forward is he what the Toronto Maple Leafs need to be a playoff team in the near future?

On pace for his 3rd 20 goal season since being acquired in 2008 from the Montreal Canadiens, Grabovski has been a human highlight reel on some pretty bad Toronto teams.  Last season he reached personal heights in goals, assists and points and was 1/3rd of the only reason to watch the Leafs during the 2010 – 2011 season.  Formerly viewed as a petulant, enigmatic ‘me-first player’, he’s matured in hog town and has been rewarded with alternate captaincy.  He’s become one of my favourite players.  If salary cap is any indicator of point production, he’s been a veritable bargain making $2.9 million these past three years.  A lot to like about the guy.

But therein lays the problem.  Grabovski is a UFA this July, and is due for quite the raise in pay.  Unless re-signed prior, he’ll enter the offseason as one of – if not the best – offensive center available through free agency.  In that sense, regardless of his modest point totals this season, he’s much like Tim Connolly was last July.  Also, compare Grabovski’s recent point totals with the likes of Ville Leino, David Backes, Brandon Dubinsky, Andrew Ladd or Tomas Plekanec and it becomes apparent that in today’s NHL, 50+ point players are worth anywhere between 4 and 5 million (and likely 4 – 6 years to boot).  And its often hard to live up to those contract dollar figures (see above).

But would such a big contract on a center be worthwhile to the Toronto Maple Leafs past this season? They have already bought and paid for Tyler Bozak and Tim Connolly, who are meeting their offensive quotas admirably; and it would be hard to justify paying $5 million a year for a potential 3rd line center.  They still have Lombardi trying to find his top 6 ways, Steckel is an ideal 4th line center, and there’s prospects Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne who project to be top 6 center material as early as next season.

Thinking beyond just this season and thinking about the Leafs needs in the pivot position, I’d like to quickly do a side by side with Los Angeles King center man Jarret Stoll, who might be exactly the third line center the Leafs are dying for to be a competitive team.  He too is due to become a free agent this summer, and the salary for his services likely won’t exceed the $3.6 million he’s being paid in LA.

11/12 FO % 11/12 Ozone% 11/12 Fin Ozone% Career points per game
J Stoll 56.4% 44.6% 54.8% 0.55
M Grabovski 49.0% 57.0% 51.9% 0.61

As a quick reference, Ozone% measures how often a player starts a shift in the offensive zone, while Fin Ozone% measures how often that player finishes their shift in the offensive zone.

This is not to suggest that Jarret Stoll is a more talented or “better” player than Grabovski, however his style of play might be more suited to the Leafs more immediate needs.  As a team that relies on speed and puck possession, Stoll’s two way acumen (as evidenced by the first 3 categories, especially Ozone% and Fin Ozone %) and ability to control the flow of the game might be more beneficial to a club that is struggling hold and defend leads.  Stoll wins key face offs, advances the puck and allows for more opportunities in the offensive zone for more offensively gifted players.  I added the last statistic to suggest that the offensive trade-off between Grabovski and Stoll wouldn’t be too staggering (though Stoll’s 11 points so far this season won’t win me any arguments).  Certainly Stoll would be a more affordable player, and one who fills a niche that Grabovski hasn’t yet proven himself suited for.

Of all the Leafs players, Grabovski seems to be the perfect candidate for a Burkian-sized trade due to his expiring contract status, outright talent, relative youth and durability.  And given considerable gifts in the attacking zone and modest cap hit, he’d be a ransom of a rental to a contender.  If the Buds are in a favourable playoff position at the end of February, then it’s more than likely that Burke stands pat with his Belorussian boy.  But should the Leafs falter and fall 6 – 10 points out of the top 8, then Brian can and should listen to whatever offers come his way. It will be interesting to see what happens if the Leafs are a bubble team.  Grabovski’s dynamic offense (as well as the chance at extended negotiating time) could the centerpiece of a deal to land the Leafs some more competent help on the blue line or in goal.

In some senses Grabovski’s effort and attitude will make the ultimate determination.  Though loved in Toronto, he wouldn’t be the first star caliber player who has wanted to cash in, nor should he be faulted for it he takes lucre.  But if he wants to play in Toronto, he’ll need to put on more performances like last night’s to prove he’s indispensible to the club.  He’ll need to take a pay cut too, but sometimes that’s the best move in a player’s career.  As ever, time will tell.

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LEAFS LINKS:

Read Mislav’s (yes, you read that correctly) excellent Game in 10 from last night.  Do it now.

VLM says its time for the real Leafs to show up.

Down Goes Brown is my favourite part of writing Mashups.

Jeff over at Marlies HQ shines a little light on the Caputi/Deschamps trade and more.

Kadri wants to see himself in a Leaf jersey in the next Winter Classic.  So do I.

Michael Stephens has been writing for Maple Leafs Hotstove since 2010, and has featured in the 2010 and 2012 Maple Leaf Annuals. Former Editiorial Intern at The Hockey News. Undergraduate degree from the University of Windsor. Chat me up about all things hockey on twitter @MLHS_Mike

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