Mikhail Grabovski, Defensive Stalwart

Mikhail Grabovski, Defensive Stalwart

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After 22 games, the one thing Leafs fans can agree on is that Randy Carlyle’s coaching methodology can be frustrating as hell.  Nowhere is this more apparent than the deployment of Mikhail Grabovski.

After signing a five-year, 27.5-million dollar contract extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs last March, it seemed as though the Leafs had shored up a terrific top-six centreman who could be counted on for 50 points a season.  But after 22 games Grabo sits with a modest 10 points (six goals, four assists); good for about 37 points in an 82-game schedule.  Yet under Carlyle he’s developed into the team’s top shutdown pivot.  So what’s to make of it?

When detailing the Mikhail Grabovski’s curtailed offensive performance for the season, we should start at his zone starts.  He compiled 51 points in 74 games last season getting 53% Offensive Zone starts.  This season, he’s only getting 33% Offensive Zone starts.  As Cam Charron pointed out in May of 2012, zone starts matter when it comes to producing offense.  This would explain some of his reduced point totals, as would his reduced role on the power play.

Connected to the zones starts, another reason why Grabovski isn’t scoring as much is that he’s facing much tougher opponents this season.  Very simply, despite proclamations to their efficacy, tough guys Mike Brown, Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren can’t be relied upon to beat teams back.  So it’s fallen on Grabo to take the toughs.

Grabovski’s Relative Corsi Quality of Competition, a metric that measures the quality of opposition a player faces, is third highest on the team at 1.568, up from 0.686 a season ago.  To put that in a broader perspective, Grabovski is currently playing against the 14th toughest competition league-wide at even strength among forwards with 15 or more games played.

He’s been given tougher assignments against first lines on a nightly basis, and is starting twice as many shifts in the defensive zone than he is the offensive zone.   That he’s been able to tally 10 points (while receiving a modest 1:47 per game on the power play) is actually a testament to the indomitable skill Grabovski possesses.  He’s managed to produce complementary scoring, despite having to skate 150 feet down the ice to create much of it.

Yet, what I find interesting is how even as a shutdown centre, Carlyle appears to be misusing him (or at least under-utilizing him) in that role.  For all the tough minutes Grabovski eats up for the Leafs, he’s not being used on the penalty kill in any capacity, registering a meagre 18 seconds of shorthanded time on ice all season.

Going back to the scary Relative Corsi Quality of Competition mentioned above, the two players ahead of Grabovski in that category are Dion Phaneuf and Nikolai Kulemin.  Both players face top lines and both feature heavily on the PK, with the former averaging 3:03 minutes on the penalty kill nightly and the latter 2:15.

Is it unreasonable to expect Fortress Grabovski to line up with his second wife on the PK?  If you’re Randy Carlyle, the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes.’

And that seems utterly bizarre on Carlyle’s part that Grabovski’s defensive duties are limited to 5 on 5, as he’s got the bona fides for the PK.  He already spends 15 minutes a night playing against top offensive competition at even strength.  He’s second on the team in faceoff percentage, winning 50.8% of his draws, well better than Jay McClement’s 44.6% (yes, the same Jay McClement that used to be a noted faceoff ace). 

This isn’t to say that Grabovski should be used only as a two-way, Rob Niedermayer-type centre, but it is another confounding choice for Carlyle.  It would probably be better to pair Grabo with players like Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk, with zone starts to match.  But if you are going to make him into a defensive stalwart, go for the gusto.

Because it’s hard to get a full picture of the player’s potential from half measures.

(Thanks to www.behindthenet.ca for the advanced statistics and metrics used in the article.)

Friday Morning Links:

Relive Nazem Kadri’s hat trick in all of its glory.

Cam Charron, who is way smarter than me, also says that the Leafs are misusing Grabovski.  His line of thinking is that Grabovski should get more offensive opportunities and play less defense.  Spell check keeps telling me to correct the last two words of the previous sentence to “fewer defenses.”

Jon Steitzer has your Game in 10 from last night’s OT thriller.  #6 in particular gave me a good chuckle.

Michael Langlois at Vintage Leaf Memories with his post gamer plus 10 questions on the past few games.

SkinnyFish over at PPP with an article on realignment and a cool history of head-to-head results of teams in the proposed divisions.

Not Leafs-specific, but with Jake Gardiner still not back on the Leafs, Adam Proteau’s piece on preventing concussions seems worthy of consideration.

Calgary offer sheets Ryan O’Reilly, the Avs match, and then beat the Flames 5 – 4 without him.  That’s never not going to be funny.

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