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Is Mikhail Grabovski playing like a top-10 center in the league?

When you live in Leaf world, as we all do, certain storylines tend to re-surface—just some more often than others.

Before I get into today's post, here are a few storyline samples in recent times:
  • When it comes to trade rumors, perhaps the name most tossed around in these parts is that of Luke Schenn.  You generally have to give up something to get something, right? And Schenn, as a young, powerful defenseman would be a plum pickup for someone—if he was in fact available. Interestingly (maybe only to me) I wrote on this very subject months ago, when Schenn had signed a new contract and his was not the number-one name being bandied about when it came to future Leaf dealings…
  • When it comes to speculation (and there is never a lack of that around here) about who the Leafs might try to acquire, well, names like Nash, Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan always seem to surface.  As I mentioned a while back, if I was Bob Murray in Anaheim, for example, here’s what I would insist on in return
  • Then there was the kerfuffle that Don Cherry stirred up recently, on the night the Leafs hosted the troops at the ACC.  Don slipped in a comment just before HNIC went to the doubleheader game at 10pm EST, about Canadian-born Rob Zettler being the only Maple Leaf coach who applauded during the third-period break in the action (when Don grabbed the mic to halt the game and salute MLSE and the troops).   I wrote about it at the time, but the mainstream media largely ignored the comment.  Now, they’re all in a lather that Burke is upset.  This is largely about two arrogant guys who like fights—each protecting their own “turf”.  It shouldn’t surprise us.  (Cherry wins this one, though.  He was doing what he gets paid to do, provide controversial opinions.  Who would watch, otherwise?)
  • Goaltending, you say?  I wrote here exactly a year ago about young Reimer and how we should hold back our expectations…
  • We also chatted about Gustavsson in a piece here weeks ago, saying that the Leafs should "set The Monster free”.   Since that time, things  have changed in in the Maple Leaf crease- in a way we didn't expect...
  • Of course, the most worrisome aspect of the current season if you’re a Leaf fan is perhaps this—will they make the playoffs?  That was also discussed in detail here not long ago…
Trade rumors, Don Cherry, Brian Burke, goaltending concerns and playoff-drought reminders during a stressful playoff drive—all part of the fun of being a Leafer…


I’m trying to remember exactly when, but at some point in this space last season I asked if Grabovski had become a top-10 NHL center.  As I recall, some said yes but others thought that was a bit Leafcentric-sounding and not realistic, given the number of truly elite centers that there are in the league.

Former NHL coach Marc Crawford seemed to suggest last night on TSN that Grabovski was now in that elite group.  I’m not sure if that’s the case.  I guess it depends on what we mean by elite, eh?  (We sure didn’t think so six weeks ago, when Grabbo seemed to be trying hard, but was not making much happen through the first 30 or so games of the current season…)

Heck, now the guy may be named the NHL Player of the Month for January (a made-up award in this modern-era, but what the heck, people seem to pay attention to these things) and he clearly has been a big part of any success the Leafs have had in recent weeks.  So, you’ve all watched him play—where does he fit in the pantheon of NHL frontline centers?

Is he in the top 10?  Top 5?  Or is he maybe just playing right now like a top-10 center? 

Before you answer, think for a moment and consider all the other outstanding centers in the league (Sedin, Malkin, Toews and Datsuyk to name just a few…)

I'll say this:  Grabovski is playing like the Grabbo we loved a year ago.

Just before the All-Star break, I suggested here that the Leafs would be able to feel good about themselves during the seven days off if they managed to complete a two-game sweep of the Islanders.  And the way they came out against the Penguins, it looked like they felt pretty darn good, for sure.

Now, let’s be honest.  The Penguins were skating in mud Tuesday night for most of the first 50 minutes.  Oh, they had some spurts but overall they were standing around an awful lot and watching the Leafs fly by.  But this is the age-old question:  did Pittsburgh play really poorly (Ray Ferraro obviously thought so on TSN) or did the Leafs simply come out flying?

I tend to not place a lot of importance on the first game after a long break, including things like the Christmas food break, or after a lengthy road trip. But this felt a bit different.  The Leafs were at their speedy best and were moving the puck with authority.  In terms of chances and edge in play, the Leafs were far superior.  Often a team coming off a break of some description looks flat or a bit rusty.  The Leafs had boundless energy and their game showed it. Even as they saw their lead dwindle late in the third period, and then in overtime, they applied tons of pressure and Fleury had to make a number of quite remarkable saves to keep the Penguins in it. (I thought without Fleury, the Leafs win this one in a walk.  As it was, they almost did—and should have.) This is one of those occasions where a one-game “save percentage” analysis—if you didn’t actually watch the action—would not tell the accurate story (Fleury was under .900, for what it’s worth).  He made huge stops and earned two points that his teammates didn’t deserve.

Grabovski alone could have had four goals just in the second period (a post on a break-in and a pass to Kulemin for what should have been a tap-in) and Schenn two as he brought some offense from the back on the rush, but couldn’t quite connect on either occasion.

Kessel had the game on his stick in OT but couldn’t quite corral a rebound to the side of Fleury.  But Monster reciprocated Fleury’s glove action with an utterly Hasek-like save in denying the Pens with less than ten seconds remaining, to send the game to a shoot-out.

The loss stings, but will be somewhat forgotten if the Leafs take the second leg of this second consecutive back-to-back to earn three out of the four possible points.  You’d have to think, though, the Penguins will be buoyed by their comeback win, and won’t come out anywhere near as dormant as they did in this one.

The Penguins are one of the teams the Leafs will be fighting with for a playoff spot—and maybe playoff seeding.  I’m not banking on Pittsburgh playing all the time like they did much of Tuesday night, whether Crosby ever returns or not (and Staal as well). For their part, if the Leafs can continue their disciplined play (resulting in very few penalties being called against them), this bodes well for the future.

Short-term bottom line:  in this first of an old-time back-to-back, the Leafs wanted it a lot more and it showed—until somebody cued a comeback.


  1. Hey Michael,

    The PIT loss stings because of a 4-1 lead lost and a lot of good work undone. The Twitterverse is all abuzz with people imploring others to calm down etc, or alternately calling for trades and heads to roll.

    The sad truth is, the Pens are not long ago SC finalists and champs. Still a very good team even with injuries. And, the Leafs are still a young team, with uncertain goaltending and an improved but really hardly elite talent base. It'll get better, but right now, the Leafs will drop games like this, and the post season will be in question.

    Is Grabovski a number 1? No. I think he's creative. I think he has a drive to win, though it's not always in gear. He's got skills. And, partly because of his ethnicity, and his stature, he reminds me of Borschevsky and Berezin. But I think his ceiling is around 60 pts... just not a consistent 82 game effort. I do think he's a very good 2nd line entre, and a serious consideration for re-signing. He slumps, but he's dangerous in that he breaks out of those slumps quickly.

    I think the Leafs need size at no 1 centre. No matter how the NHL changes, I think the 'smurfs' in MTL show you can't go all small and shifty.

  2. Of course I view everything through blue & white coloured glasses, so yes, Grabbo is a top-10 centre. You mention some elite guys, and he may not be there in stats and finesse, but one must note his tenacity, desire, and work ethic on a nightly basis. That is evident even when the numbers aren't there. If your buddy Kulemin were just a bit more fortunate (I don't want to say 'better' because he's played well), Grabbo's stats would be almost elite-like.

    On to that horrendous loss last night. This is the kind of game that has us hopping mad and always talking of trades, etc. They should have been up 5 or 6-1, but couldn't finish. Not sure if anyone else feels this way, but Tim Connolly needs to shoot harder--he had 2 good chances to bury the puck but chose to baby it to the net both times, making Fleury look a lot better. We need more guys like Grabbo...Connolly is one of those guys who really frustrates.

    Better teams close the deal in games like that, and better teams find a way to take advantage of teams that don't close the deal. We can whine about the refereeing, about how well we played for 52 minutes, about how we're the youngest team and still learning, but the truth is we are not in the class of the better teams at the moment. It's frustrating, but true. Must win tonight at home!


  3. Argh, last night's loss was a tough pill to swallow. It was one of those games where the Leafs' luck just seemed really really bad. Bozak's disallowed goal, Gardiner's bad deflection leading to Sullivan's goal, Malkin's arm goal deflection, Fleury's crazy saves....ugh.

    Anyone else think Steve Sullivan looked really good out there? At 37, he still has the wheels and hands.

    I'd say right now, Grabbo is the Leafs' most important/best player. Plays against top lines, generating a lot of offense, looks very confident out there.

  4. Mark, you've well articulated the historical hockey challenge of assessing the value of the "big man" versus the "little guy". When I was a kid in the '60s, it was Beliveau, Ratelle and Esposito, for example versus Henri Richard, Keon and Mikita. It still prevails today and GM's face these decisions, I guess. Great post Mark, thanks.

    Caedmon, you make very valid points about Grabovski's value. He is a solid player who brings a lot to the table, especially at his best.

    And I agree that the Leafs are very much what you say: a solid young team, not in the truly elite ranks at this point. But next year or the year after?

    Hogie...I love your point about Sullivan. Still has it, I agree, despite so many injuries, age, etc. And yes, Grabbo looks so confident right now. That means everything in sports, at any age. If you feel good about your game, it shows and everything just seems to come naturally....

  5. It was a game that showed the Leafs at their speedy, impressive best, although apparently still not quite good enough. The missing “killer instinct” is still in evidence, albeit in a much better light than a short time ago. This team is very fast and talented, like a high performance creature that has to be running at optimum, finicky levels to be effective at all. This kind of animal is more difficult to train than the slow, plodding ones that we typically see clog up the neutral zone.

    Although it is customary to scapegoat coaches when things go wrong, perhaps we can acknowledge the work of Wilson, Zettler, Cronin, Gordon, Allaire, et al., for the impressive, entertaining hockey we are now seeing? Of course, judging by the play of former Marlies, Eakins, Dineen and King should be included as well. And just as the coaches are showing themselves to be effective teachers, the players are proving themselves to be model students. While they are showing considerable drive, could it be that these students are just a little too polite for the “real world” (meaning the playoffs)? It is certainly fun to watch the evolution of the team of late. This season is nothing if not compelling.

  6. I would be hugely disappointed if they don't hang on to Grabovski. He has a ton of skill and is probably the toughest player on the team when it comes to withstanding punishment. These are the type of guys you should be wanting to retain.

    Agree that Connolly is just taking up a roster space, I have seen no sense of urgency in his play at all.

    The Leafs really lack large annoying players that drive the elite players on the opposing teams to distraction. During the Ottawa and New York games they were all over Kessel and there was no push back from the Leafs. I am not talking about some goon going out to have a meaningless fight with their goon, it would be nice to have someone to put out to finish every check on a guy like Malkin and put him off his game. We all know he doesn't play well under those circumstances. Armstrong is that type of player but he is never healthy. Bottom line is that we need size, skill and attitude in order to take this team to the next level.

  7. Bobby C...I like your analogy. These guys are indeed like a high-priced, fine automobile. The down side indeed is sometimes if one little thing goes wrong....

    The coaches do deserve credit, for sure, but they will also receive the "blame" if the team does not make the necessary strides in these last two months of the season, eh? I agree Bobby, they are absolutely fun to watch most nights. We are watching the flower bloom; now it's up to Burke not to pull off the wrong petals.

    cbh747- I hear about you Grabbo's toughness. We all remember the game in Boston last season, and he continues to play hard most nights.

    As for Connolly, he makes some sweet plays but when he is in a bit of a swoon, this is what the Buffalo fans and media were moaning about last season- and why they were un-concerned when he left as a UFA.

    You raise a very good point about perhaps missing a skillful agitator, which Armstrong could well be, if healthy. Where is Claude Lemieux?

  8. Grabo is the best all around forward the leafs have. Burke has decided to pay players such as Armstrong, Komi, Connolly, Macarthur and Schenn good money that they prove night in and night out they do not deserve. The team needs Grabo.

  9. Great points from the VLM'ers today. This was the kind of game Leafs have to win if there's to be any realistic hope of playoffs. I don't think it's that the Pens were skating in mud and then turned it on - I think it's that the Leafs didn't have enough players with the will and grit to win - a problem that's bedevilled them all year. As cbh747 says - why aren't we finishing our checks like all the other teams do against us? Why is Kadri's hit the biggest of the night? Why does no one take on Cooke after he mugs our Captain? And as Bobby C mentions - where's that killer instinct? We've got the speed, we've got some fantastic creativity on offence, but until we address questions like these, we ain't going nowhere, to paraphrase the old song.

  10. Anon...I can't argue against your point. It's true that Burke has paid significant amounts to those you listed, as players who he felt met his needs at the time. Schenn may turn out to be a good contract, but we'll see over the next couple of seasons if and as he matures and develops further. But you make a fair point: if those guys were worth "x", how much is Grabovski worth on the heels of what appears will be two pretty darn good seasons (overall) in Toronto- and a now fairly long history with the team?

    Gerund O'...the issue of finishing checks is something you and I have harped on here for...well...quite a long time. They have that dazzling skill and creativity and sometimes show some fantastic puck movement. But the guys who will hammer you and make you think twice about holding onto the puck? That we don't have so much....

  11. As for Grabbo... (got too worked up thinking about last night's game)... It's difficult to say if Grabbo's a top tenner because that's usually linked with successful linemates. If any of his wingers had been able to score consistently, he'd be having a banner year that would more than deliver on last year's promise. He's fast, creative, has a wicked shot, and can take a licking and keep on ticking. His line is starting to look like its old self (selves?) again. I'm looking forward to seeing what he, MacArthur and Kulemin can do over the next two months.

  12. Great comments today - found myself nodding in agreement while reading.

    There was a couple of unlucky breaks last night, but the key ingredient missing right now for the Leafs is mental toughness. As a follow up to our converastion last week, Dion and the defensive core displayed a good effort last night but not a "complete" or "hungry to win" effort....and I highlight Dion because of the C on the jersey and lack of leading by example.

    As mentioned above, I'll be dissapointed if they move Grabbo - top tenner or not he has shown the toughness and complete effort that it takes to win.

    I'd keep him over MacArthur, Armstrong, Schenn, Connolly any day of the week.

  13. Gerund O' touches on a point that might be contentious- is Grabbo hindered somewhat by the inability of his line mates to finish sometimes, or he is not a centre that makes the guys around him better?

    Really well said, David. And I think your comments reflect what quite a few Leaf followers are feeling: yes Grabbo has his quiet periods like most players, but over the past two season, he has delivered quite a bit- regardless of whether he is thought of as a "number-one" or "number-two", etc.

  14. I'm too busy counting Grabbo's 7 points in 2 games to have a rational discussion about his value. OMGrabovski, indeed.

  15. C'mon don't even count on this one. Your love affair with Grabbo goes back a long way....

  16. I can still monitor the comments for any hint of rampant anti-Grabboism, though.