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How Grabovski became a top-ten center in the NHL; the passing of Buffalo's Rick Martin

I have been wanting to post about long-time Buffalo Sabre legend Gilbert Perreault for some time.  The sudden death this past weekend of his "French Connection" linemate, Richard Martin, is something I wanted to at the very least ackowledge here.  Martin was a gifted offensive player, a real sharp-shooter.  In my books he was a true power forward because not only could he skate but he would go to the dirty areas to score.

I'll write more about Rick another time.  For now I'll just say that, to this day, I'm not sure there has been another guy I have ever seen who could score from "in close" like Martin.  Even against the huge goalies in his day, like Ken Dryden in Montreal, Martin could wrist his popwerful shot from in tight up and over the goalie, but tuck it masterfully just under the cross bar.

He would have looked great with the Leafs in his hey-day.  A guy I so admired, just a great player.


When the NHL emerged from the lock out, we all remember (other than never-ending greed and a salary cap) what emerged from the year away from the game:   a determination to change the way referees called the game, which in turn made the players adapt to a new style of play. 

Initially, there were all kinds of penalties called as we went through the painful adjustment period.  The intent, though,  was to change player habits to get rid of a lot of the clutching and grabbing, the subtle hooking and holding that was clogging up the center of the ice.  (Of course, we need only watch Lemaire’s Devils to see that, as Ken Hitchcock implied years ago, there are always ways for smart coaches to shut down offense and create 1-0 games just about every night.)  In short, open the game up.

Tired of the no-offense approach inspired by the Devils (and the left-wing lock, the trap, etc.) the league wanted to make room on the ice for smaller, skilled players.  The powers-that-be determined that fans wanted to see more goals and a more wide-open game.  And to a certain extent, that has happened.  (Unfortunately, the resulting increased speed of the game, along with the size of equipment worn by players along with the size of players has led to all kinds of injury concerns, but that’s a story for another day.)

Now, to be successful as a player, you still have to be willing to get your nose dirty, even in the "new NHL".  You can’t just float around the perimeter.  But there is again room now for the smallish skill guy.

Someone who, to a certain extent, fits that description is Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski.  Grabbo’s not exactly tiny, but he's not a big man by today's standards.  In truth, two years ago I saw him as someone who could skate, make nice plays and who would put up some points but would never be a complete player.

I was wrong.

Those of you who follow this site know that I have long acknowledged I was not a Grabovski guy heading into this season.  I didn’t even think he’d be here.  Even as the season moved forward, my reservations were registered a post “What do we really have in Mikhail Grabovski”. (Click on his name to see that column.)

Right now, though, Grabovski is one of the best centers in hockey, arguably in the top five at that position in the league.  Oh, others have more points, but in terms of his value to his team, how many guys stand ahead of Grabovski based on performance this season?

The Leafs have certainly relied on Reimer.  That can’t be debated.  Without young Reimer, their season was lost.

But the one guy who has been consistently effective this season is Grabovski, even when the team was struggling.  He plays bigger than his size, goes to the dirty areas, makes his linemates better and importantly, can finish.

How did he get to this point?  By all accounts he went away at the end of last season determined to come back a different, better and more complete player.  He got stronger.  He has used his speed. Where earlier in his career he was best known for his peculiar feud with former Belarussian teammates on the Montreal Canadiens, he is now a difference-maker most night for the blue and white.

This is the result, it seems, of maturity, self-reflection, a better work ethic and a new attitude—while better using and expanding his skill set.

From a Maple Leaf perspective, I don’t want to argue his value versus Kessel.  The Leafs need both of them to be at their best to be successful.  Phil has contributed a lot of offense, though not enough to please everyone.  But overall, he is delivering as advertised.  He is a speed guy who isn’t just a finisher.  He can set guys up, too.

But Kessel is still minus 19 on the season, whereas Grabovski is plus 13.  That statistic is not the end all and be all, to be sure.  But I refuse to ignore it as though it doesn’t matter.  It does.

There are all kinds of elite NHL centers throughout the 30 team league, the injured Crosby at the head of the list.  But we also have Toews, Henrik Sedin, Kopitar in LA., Richards, Eric Staal, the emerging Kesler in Vancouver and Richards and Carter in Philadelphia all ahead of him in the scoring race.  Tavares, Datsyuk, Ribiero, Getstlaf, Thornton and Backstrom, too.

Those of us who watch Grabbo every night are perhaps biased, just as those who follow the other guys and see them regularly have a better idea of just how valuable they all are to their respective teams.

But I would put forward that, on an offensively challenged team like the Leafs, Grabovski has demonstrated, this season at least, that he is one of the ten best in the NHL at his position.

Your thoughts?



  1. I think you can squeeze him in the top 20 now, but 10 is pushing it. That's an elite group.

    Looking at the scoring list, I'd take Stamkos, Kesler, Crosby, Carter, Toews, Eric Staal, Brad and Mike Richards, Kopitar, Datsyuk, Stastny, Getzlaf, Backstrom, Henrik Sedin, Thornton, Malkin and probably Spezza ahead of him still. Long term you'd probably have to say Tavares and Duchene too.

    That's 17 I'd put ahead of him right now, so I think top 20 is fair.

  2. thought: you're out of your ever-loving mind. he's having a good year, congrats. top 5 in the league? sure. also Reimer for the Vezina and Schenn for the Norris.

  3. @Anonymous: You'd be well served to work on reading things before making snap remarks. The argument is the following:

    in terms of his value to his team, how many guys stand ahead of Grabovski based on performance this season?

    It's obviously debatable. Top 10-15 is more likely especially since looking at Oli's list I'd put Datsyuk, Crosby, Toews, Mike Richards, Getzlaf, and Thornton ahead of him based on the parametes that VLM outlined but maybe the same person that helped you log on to the computer can help you understand what was written.

  4. Agree completely with your comments. He is also one of the toughest players that I have seen. He takes a lot of abuse and just keeps on going.

  5. @Pension Plan Puppets: Why are you so angry? (Well, probably because of last night's game, but still.) The "parameters" that you quote aren't really parameters. What other parameters might there be other than value to team and performance? Those are both umbrella terms that can be broken down into all sorts of things - scoring, defensive play, face-off percentage, etc.

    So Anonymous is right, even if you don't appreciate his/her cheekiness. (I for one found it funny.) Top 10 is pushing it, and Top 5 is pretty much audacious. Mid teens or top 20 is more reasonable, as Oli argued.

  6. There is no question Grabovski does not have the track record of most of the truly elite centers mentioned in my original post, and in the comments posted here. I absolutely acknowledge that a "top 5" designation would put him up there with some outstanding players and I fully recognize that he is not there just yet.

    "Top ten"? I think we can start to have the argument, at least.

    Mostly, the post was intended to demonstrate that he is a player I have come to respect and also to generate some discussion. It's always fun to debate things respectfully in a forum like this.

    Thanks to everyone who sent their comments along.