It’s days like these where you miss Brian Burke. The straight-shooting, loyalist ex-GM of the Leafs had his faults (eg. being too loyal), but impatience was never one of them. The buyout of Mikhail Grabovski, one year into a recently signed contract reeks of shortsightedness and impulsiveness on the part of Leafs management.
Admittedly, we cannot judge this move until the full extent of Dave Nonis’s plans are revealed. However, we do know that the free agent center options still remaining are limited at best. Names such as Bozak and Weiss do not represent an upgrade on either end of the ice over Grabovski. In conjunction with the recognition that Grabovski’s “down year” is the product of a shortened sample size, limited minutes, extremely difficult competition and few o-zone starts – this move is puzzling to say the least.
Ironically enough, today MLHS was going to release its final player review on Grabovski himself. While that article will never be released in its entirety, it featured a logical defense of the Belorussian center. It examined the tantalizing possibility of returning Grabovski to an offensive role where he belongs, with Bolland shouldering the shutdown responsibilities and defensive zone starts.
There were many reasons that indicated this year should not be used as a conclusive judgement of the Leafs best center. The most damning, simple defense? It was one (shortened) season – a sample size of just 48 games. Yet the whispers of Grabovski being “done” or “just not good enough” began to percolate in the maddening sphere of irrationality that is the Toronto hockey market.
After being one of the driving forces behind the Leafs offense for years (regularly near the top of the league in possession statistics), Grabovski found himself thrust into a defensive role with limited minutes in 2012-2013. True to his relentless work ethic and competitive spirit, Mikhail took to his new role with aplomb, never once uttering a word of complaint. Even after being abruptly shoved out the door, his character and love for the city of Toronto still shine through:
Mikhail Grabovski to Pressball.by: ‘It’s very sad to leave #TML fans, probably the best fans in the world. I wish them to win SC without me’
— Igor Eronko (@IgorEronko) July 4, 2013
Is it at all surprising that a player would produce poorly when given just over 15 minutes of average ice time? Consider that his best year, a 29-29 output in 2010-2011, came with roughly 19 minutes of average ice time. Minutes that are in line with other top six centers in the league. Simply put – it would have been virtually impossible for him to produce anywhere near that level considering how he was deployed in this campaign. To further emphasize the “pigeon-holing” he received, the feisty forward was limited to just 36% offensive zone starts while facing the 3rd highest quality of competition on the team. The only forwards that surpassed him in this respect were often his linemates – Kulemin and McClement.
The story of this season for Grabovski would read as such: you take an offensively dynamic center and force him into one of the most purely defensive roles in the league, alongside players with limited offensive capabilities. Then, you begin reducing his minutes to that of a third line player, effectively eliminating any possibility of him working his way out of his apparent offensive doldrums.
In the now-defunct MLHS player review, it was concluded that all signs indicated that Grabovski could very well bounce back given, you know, a chance. Having played less than 7% of his shifts as a Maple Leaf with Kessel, fan-concocted storylines of “no chemistry” were not based on anything but conjecture. Indeed, the prudent route would have been to give Grabovski that opportunity in 2013-2014. If indeed he were to falter once more, the Leafs could explore trade options, or use the second compliance buyout at that point.
Instead, it seems that Dave Nonis et al. have something grand planned in the immediate future. Grabovski’s contract was inflated to the tune of a million dollars or so, although this did not appear to cause any problems in the near future for Toronto’s cap structure. Clearly, the Maple Leafs envision resigning some of their 2014 UFA’s to big contracts while also overpaying some of this year’s crop in the coming days. Why else would Nonis so quickly renege on his statement that Toronto would not use their second compliance buyout? Hopefully, it was not so they could throw money at an older, offensively/defensively inferior Stephen Weiss.
Until the dust settles on what will surely be a busy UFA period, Leafs fans should remember Grabovski for what he was. A warrior of a player with a questionable, but hilarious, handle on the English language. That special brand of crazy that became better after being hit by Zdeno Chara. A person who in his hardest, most challenging season as a Leaf still elevated his game in the playoffs because he wanted nothing more than victory for his team and their fans. Make no mistake – regardless of who Nonis and company bring in to replace the departed Grabovski, he will be missed.