How many different ways can you skin a cat?

Rather, how many different ways can you look at the Mikhail Grabovski extension?

“How is he making more money than Phil Kessel?”

(At the time Phil Kessel signed his deal he was an RFA, not a UFA, and he was making a higher percentage of the salary cap than Grabovski currently is).

“Blame the Oilers and Hurricanes for the money they gave Hemsky and Ruutu.”

“He would have got more on the open market.”

“Grabovski’s never even recorded 60 points.”

“In five years will he be worth $5.5 million?”

“How is he making more money than Ryan Kesler!?!?”

On and on it goes, when it will stop? Nobody knows.

The bottom line is this: there is zero chance that the Leafs could lose Mikhail Grabovski this summer, bring in an upgrade over him – internally or externally – AND find a real number one center.

Zero chance.

And that’s it. That’s all there is to it.

The deal can be looked at in all sorts of numbers, comparisons, views, whatever, but the Leafs, as they stand today, are not going to get any better by losing Mikhail Grabovski, downgrading with Tyler Bozak, Tim Connolly or Joe Colborne playing on the second line instead of him, and creating even more holes than they already have at the center position in the process.

Even if any of those aforementioned players were able to come in and replace Grabovski’s 55-60 points – which is doubtful – none of them can play against another teams top line with any sort imperturbability (that’s your word of the day). And Randy Carlyle certainly isn’t going to ask Joffrey Lupul, Phil Kessel and whoever’s centering them moving forward to match up against the other team’s best, nor do I even want to think about the possibility of David Steckel seriously being asked to shutdown the likes of Evgeny Malkin, Claude Giroux and Steven Stamkos at any time. Ever.

In no way would losing Grabovski and having any of the other options take place make the Leafs any better for the next year or two. In fact, it would probably make them worse.

The only alternative for Brian Burke would have been to trade Grabovski for a young prospect who is almost NHL ready – someone who has a higher upside than Grabovski – and take those immediate lumps but be better off in the long-term. But based on Darren Dreger’s comments – they were offered a second round draft pick and a player in the AHL who sounded like a “B” level prospect – the Leafs just didn’t have that option. When the trade deadline passed and Grabovski was still in a Leaf jersey, the writing was on the wall.

So really, at the end of the day, the Leafs‘ only real option if they wanted to continue being competitive and continue improving for the next few years was to re-sign the diminutive center with a big heart and move forward.

It should be noted that the only player available this summer as a free agent that’s even within Grabovski’s realm is Olli Jokinen. That more or less speaks for itself.

The Leafs were almost cornered into signing Grabovski in a sense because losing him would have signified a step back when you consider possible replacements. Is Grabovski overpaid as a second line center? Probably. Is he one of the better second line centers in the league though? Probably, too.

Now Toronto moves forward with him locked in as a core piece of the future. He joins Phil Kessel, Jake Gardiner and Dion Phaneuf as the team’s core players. Based on contracts, John-Michael Liles, Luke Schenn and James Reimer are part of that core as well. Based on their play this season, you can realistically include Joffrey Lupul, Mike Brown, Matt Frattin, David Steckel and Carl Gunnarsson in this “core” group too.

After that, you can play with the pieces.

The question now really isn’t “is Grabovski worth it,” but “how is he going to make that money?” Will it be as a high scoring second line center that Carlyle uses to exploit offensive situations, or will he be used to match-up against the other teams best players night-in and night-out in a shut down role, while also being asked to score on a second unit power play?

Based on the Montreal game, Carlyle is going to use Grabovski against the other teams best players, and he’s going to play him a lot in the process. Strictly speaking, if he is used to play against the other teams best players every single game, and puts up 55 points, is that worth $5.5million? If he’s used for “just” offense, gets some better line mates, and puts up 65-70 points, is that worth $5.5million?

Both are viable options, and both are things he can (potentially) do. The point is, he’s actually capable of earning the money he’s being given, which is a start.

The next question is: how does this effect the rest of the roster?

Are Tyler Bozak and Mikhail Grabovski really the one-two punch Brian Burke and Randy Carlyle desire down the middle? If not -and they’re more than likely not – where does this leave Tyler Bozak?

Grabovski is signed, sealed and delivered now. He’s going nowhere. Either Bozak continues to improve and becomes a true number one center, he drops to the third line in a bottom six checking role, or he is moved altogether.

Looking at the center position, they have Grabovski and Steckel more or less locked in, two bad contracts in Matthew Lombardi and Tim Connolly who they would love to move, Tyler Bozak who is underpaid and will need a new contract after next season, and then two guys in Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne who are on the brink of needing full-time NHL duties.

How that translates to a Cup contender is anyone’s guess at this point, but clearly, Brian Burke and his staff have a lot of work ahead of them this summer. Moving Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi, then bringing in a true number one center, is a lot harder than it sounds. Frankly, it doesn’t even sound easy to do to begin with.

In a sense, the best phrase to describe this deal might be “two steps forward, one step back.” There are some risks, there are some positives, but there’s no way the Leafs could afford to lose him and remain competitive based on what else is out there. Yet with all that, there still seems to be something about this deal that just makes it unsettling.

But he’s locked in and it’s time to move forward now.

We say this prospectively before every off season, but truly this is the most important summer for Brian Burke and the rest of Leafs management if they’re going to take the next big step. He’s isn’t beginning to build a core anymore, he’s already established it to some degree. Now he needs to bring in another core member and complement what he’s built.