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Maybe Grabovski can join Brian Burke in Buffalo next season…

Even the most un-believing Leaf supporter has to know that, now, the blue and white are playoff-bound.  If we had any doubts before, the emphatic 5-1 victory against the hated Habs on Saturday night at the ACC put an exclamation point on the team’s intentions.  They plan to make the playoffs—and just maybe make some noise once they get there. (Quick aside: work-related commitments made it a challenge to try and catch the Leaf-Montreal game...I saw precious little!  Feel free to share any take-aways you had from that contest...) 

I know I’m repeating myself, but as I keep asking here:  who is unbeatable in the East?  Name the team that can’t be beaten in a playoff round?  Heck, even the once-feared Bruins seemingly are not what they were, and certainly not with Bergeron injured (and Marchand, too?)

Can the Leafs be the squad that can take advantage of that overall ‘vulnerability’ with so many teams in flux in the Conference?  That I don't know, but as of this moment, I’m hard-pressed to think of legitimate (not manufactured or concocted) reasons why they can’t do some damage this spring.  I’m not saying they will, but I believe they are capable of doing just that.

As I often say here:  we’ll see.  But I think I've raised the bar a bit from "no expectations this season" to....well, a bit more than that.

Meantime, we are all aware that those who live in Leaf country have experienced (or at least heard about) the angst in recent weeks around the beloved Mikhail Grabovski.  That ‘storyline’ has seen the feisty center lose playing time, thus creating a furor in some circles around the notion that the veteran Leaf has been grossly mis-used by Leaf coach Randy Carlyle. Some can’t understand Carlyle’s thinking, or assume this is somehow personal.  Many are campaigning for Grabovski to play ahead of, say, Tyler Bozak.

This all culminated in some  (surely) temporary fourth-line minutes, and suggestions that Grabbo’s relationship with Carlyle has deteriorated to the point of no return.  Then when we discovered that Grabovski was “missing” after a game last week, I’m sure Leafers were wondering if he had finally had enough—and bolted, or was at least in a snit.

Of course, calmer heads prevailed when it was announced that he was undergoing hospital tests for a lingering gastrointestinal issue, something that has evidently been plaguing him for some time.

I’m not sure if it is somehow instructive, a bit ironic or intuitively useless information that Grabovski actually played more than Bozak in Saturday’s big win against Montreal.  It may mean something, or absolutely nothing.  (You may recall that I posted a few days ago that Mikhail might well be a key Leaf in the upcoming playoff run, despite the concerns about his supposed ‘mis-usage’…).  But he’s back, seemingly healthy, and that’s a good thing.

I do have one question for Leaf fans: whether you are one of those who believe he has indeed been misused or not, put yourself in the shoes of the Leafs’ top wingers this season.  I’m thinking about, for example, Kessel, Lupul and van Riemsdyk, generally acknowledged as our frontline wingers.  Even include some other skill guys like Kulemin, MacArthur and Frattin.  If they were asked, honestly, to choose which center they would really and truly prefer to play with, whom do you think they would pick?  Would it be Grabbo, Kadri or Bozak?

For some reason, I sense the majority of those players would gravitate to Kadri or Bozak.  This is not to suggest Grabovski is somehow unpopular or not a great guy to play with.  I just wonder if Carlyle is simply facing a practical reality that, a) given how important McClement has become, and b) the fact that Kadri makes guys around him a lot better than they otherwise might be and c) Kessel’s reliance on Bozak, all that may, some nights, make it difficult for the long-time Leaf center to get the minutes some feel he deserves.

The longer-term question is maybe:  does Grabovski have a long shelf life in Toronto?  Does he in fact have a lousy relationship with the demanding Leaf coach?  Is he, as some suggest, a victim of poor deployment strategies by Carlyle?

While he is in the midst of a contract and Bozak is a pending UFA, is it nonetheless conceivable that the Leafs will want to re-sign Bozak—even at money that is more than some of us may feel is justified, because of his versatility and ‘fit’ (and friendship) with the usually dynamic Kessel?  (I’m not suggesting friendship is going to be part of management’s decision-making process, simply that the on-ice chemistry in this case seems, to a certain degree, to have roots in their off-ice collegiality…)

If the Leafs were to consider moving Grabovski in the off-season, I wonder if a fit might be just across the border?  My thinking is based, in part, on something that I posted about here some time back.  One landing spot for former Leaf General Manager Brian Burke may well be Buffalo.  I don’t pretend to know what Sabre owner Terry Pegula is thinking these days, but he can’t be thrilled that, two years into his ownership, the team (despite some mini winning streaks of late) many nights has looked more muddled, inconsistent and unstructured than it has in a long time.  Some nights they appear disinterested—the sign of a team somewhat adrift and lacking leadership in some respect.

If Pegula decides that, with Lindy Ruff gone behind the bench, an interim coach in his place and Darcy Regier on the job now for like 15 seasons, it may be time to start fresh with his own people.  Some of the criticism from the local Buffalo fans and media is that the team lack intensity and requires a major re-build—a re-build that began in earnest just prior to the recent trade deadline, with the Sabres picking up a number of significant draft choices in return for some marketable veterans.

Does that not seem like a fit for the former Leaf GM?  Regier's replacement will have lots of draft picks and assets at his disposal to "hurry up" the re-build.

Burke in Buffalo may just make a bit of sense.  Other than Montreal, which would never happen, and perhaps Ottawa, I would think a Buffalo placement for Burke would re-ignite what has been, at times, a pretty keen rivalry between these two franchises. 

We know Grabovski played well while Burke was in Toronto.  Burke would, unlike when he joined the Leafs, likely hire his own guy to coach the Sabres.  In that scenario, would Grabbo be somebody that would thrive in a front-line role on a team that needs strength up the middle and some leadership?  They have Steve Ott (who may be a future captain but is not a big-time goal scorer) and the emerging Cody Hodgson, but Grabbo could light things up in Sabre town.

If Pegula is looking for some bravado and brashness and an injection of confidence after the reserved if thoughtful Regier regime, he may well see Burke as the best available fit for the job.

I know this is conjecture, and right now, Leaf fans are most interested in whether Grabovski can help us advance in the playoffs.  But since there has been some much huffing and puffing about Grabbo, I’m just, you know, thinking ahead.


With that as a backdrop—and part of the controversy that forever engulfs the Leaf universe—I’m sure everyone noticed that Jake Gardiner was quietly inserted into the lineup against a “skill” roster and played 24 minutes Saturday night.  (Was that more than any other defensemen?  I think it was.)

Was another Leaf crisis averted?  You tell me.

No matter.  Where else can you find something to talk about every day?


Some VLM columns you can catch up on….
  • For those interested in the “Leaf Matters” podcast, here is a link to some recent topics and guests


  1. Saturday's game saw the Leaf's outplayed in the first. Reimer held the fort and the special teams were good, most notably the PK and of course Toskla was in net for Montreal. The second was more even and the third was all Toronto playing shut down defense.

    To be honest I was most impressed by the third period. That was a very good example of defensive hockey at it's finest.

    As for Grabo and his play this year I have been sayig it for a while now, Carlyle misued him to start the year. He even admitted as much 15 or 20 games or so ago. He also said the same about Kulemin. He also said he was going to give them some more offensive oppurtunitys at the same time. Since then one player has taken the ball and run with it and the other has fumbled his way to the fourth line on occasion.

    I feel both parties are at fault here and the onus is on the player at this point to get it right. The situation reminds me of Schenn and Wilson, the coach has no faith in the player and the player has lost all confidence in himself and the coach as well. To be truthful, I really see no fit here for Grabovski in the coming years. He isn't the first line center, that's Bozak who I feel they will re-sign (there just aren't better options out there on the free agent market), the second line center is Kadri and the third is Maclement (maybe Colburne next year). You can't have a 5mil/yer third or fourth line centerman especially when the cap goes down.

    I could defintely see Burke in Buffalo next year and it would not shock me at all to see Grabo end up there. I can't wait till next year when you have to play out of your conference at playoff time to advance. The rivalries are going to be awesome. Having Burke in Buffalo would just add that spice. Should be good and I kind of want to see it happen.

    As for Gardiner he played well and I could see him taking over for Gunnarsson on the first playing if he keeps making sound descions like he did on Saturday. Speaking of Gunner he was dreadful in the first half of the game and while he did manage to turn it around in the second half he has got to be better no two ways about it.

  2. Good to hear your thoughts on the Leaf-Hab game, Willbur. I didn't see enough to assess things properly.

    Interesting that you also see a possible Burke-Grabovski reunion...Sabres need help and have draft choices to move.

    We'll see where Carlyle goes in terms of defense pairings. Will Gardiner go from the press box to top minutes? It's been that kind of a season, and so far, the strings the coach is pulling have worked way more often than not. Thanks Willbur.

  3. Saturday's game wasn't a classic and I was actually glad to see MTL make it 3-1 at one point to keep it interesting.

    if you're bored you can skim through the whole thing at:


  4. Grabbo is puzzling to me. The last 2 years he was in the debate for best player on the team. This year he is one of those players who "blend in" with the rest. If not for his style of skating, we wouldn't know who was out there or when.

    Maybe he is being used in the wrong way or situations. Or maybe he is a casualty of "Super Kadri" and "Mr. Does Everytihng Right McClement" (what a pick up he was). I just think it's a combination of both.

    As for Gardiner, he seemes to have taken in Carlyle's teachings and he and the team are better off. The first thing on a defenceman's mind should be defense, then comes the offence if possible. If a D-man plays offence only, then you might as well put a forward on the blue line. There are no more Coffees or Bourques, in today's game they have to be defense first.

    After the Gallagher and Kadri show, do you still think Boston would be a better series than Montreal for the Leafs?

  5. To your question, portuguese leaf, I guess it depends on whether we're thinking "better" means who could the Leafs beat, versus how much fun it would be as a fan to have them play either Boston or Montreal.

    I see both of those teams as beat-able...and at this point, yes, by the Maple Leafs. That is not to say that it will happen, but there is no reason why they could not beat either the Bruins or the Habs.

    In terms of how much fun it would be, probably Montreal is higher on the list, for all the obvious historical reasons. That said, a match-up with the Bruins would quickly escalate into something potentially special (I don't believe we've played them in the playoffs in a long time, either, unless I'm forgetting something), particularly given the just-underneath-the-surface Kessel/Seguin debate. Whether the players (or some fans) want to hear that, it is ever-present, and would be part of a playoff series storyline, for sure.

    Thanks portuguese leaf. Always great to get your thoughts.

  6. Like your thoughtful commentary on the Leafs, which I link to from the PPP site. One nit to pick; you say of the Sabres that "Some nights they appear disinterested..." I think perhaps you mean to say 'uninterested'? To be disinterested is to be objective or dispassionately involved. (A judge, for eg., is ideally disinterested but not uninterested in the outcome of a legal case.) The Sabres indeed appear to be uninterested, and certainly require a disinterested assessment of their shortcomings.

  7. I stand corrected, Anon! I have a (albeit modest) background in language- I should know the difference.

  8. Hi Michael,

    I am not sure any teams in the East are unbeatable. They all have weaknesses. Some more than others. The two acknowledged elites; Pittsburg, have the unpredictable Fleury while Boston is lacking in scoring and the unproven Rask. The rest are all beatable and the Leafs match quite well against any of them. The team that scares me most is Washington. I think this is the dark horse of the East. IMO, I would prefer to play Boston instead of the Capitals as I think they have all the ingredients and is peaking at just the right time.

    The Leafs right now is one of the better teams playing. There are still some issues to be ironed out but the depth is very evident. So much so, that Gabbo's ice time is the topic of du jour. All due to depth.

    As you probably gather in my previous posts, I am not much of a Gabbo's fan. Is he miscast? Probably. Are there issues we don't know? I don't know. But considering what Bozak, Kadri and McClement has done, where would he play? Is he better skilled than Bozak, debatable but considering Bozak has had success with Kessel throughout the season, why would you change? Is he better than Kadri right now? Absolutely not. Can he play a good checking roll better than McClement? Look at the plus/minus stats. Some put little relevance to this stat but I haven't seen McClement being out played defensively. So that leaves you with very little line left to put Gabbo and Carlyle has tried to compensate it by putting him on the 2nd PP with limited success.

    This is a minor problem but one that needs to be address considering how much Gabbo makes. I understand that he is simply in a bad situation right now. I don't know what happened but it appears he is simply not happy and doesn't seem to have that determination at the moment. Little things you pick up. After the Kessel's goal Saturday night, the look on Gabbo's face spoke volumes. I think he needs to be pissed off and start to have the mentality to tell Carlyle that he's an idiot by playing to the level he is capable of instead of what appears to be half hazard sulking play.

    I like your idea of the Buffalo situation and I think it is a good fit both for Burke and Gabbo. Gabbo needs a change and Buffalo has the assets to make that happen. At this point, I don't see how Gabbo will fit into the long term plan of the Leafs. With his play recently and the dollar committed, the Leafs will be lucky to get something of value in return and the only one likely to pay it is Buffalo. That said, who ever gets him will definitely gain a good asset provided he gets his "juju" back. Seems like the Montreal situation all over again.

  9. "If they were asked, honestly, to choose which center they would really and truly prefer to play with, whom do you think they would pick? Would it be Grabbo, Kadri or Bozak? For some reason, I sense the majority of those players would gravitate to Kadri or Bozak. "

    It's pretty silly to pretend you can read the player's minds and know what they are thinking.

  10. Good post, as always, Lukas.

    Just mentioning Grabovski's name seems to set off a firestorm of Carlyle hate these days. Today, I was trying to simply (as you picked up) note some "rational" reasons why the guy is not playing a lot some nights. You've provided your own thoughtful perspective.

    I like the guy as a player. Not as much this season, but we all see there are factors at play- some of his own making, others not. You make a good point: as when he left Montreal, he may be inspired to prove the Leafs/Carlyle wrong if they do move him at some point this summer.

    Thanks Lukas.

  11. Greg:

    Of course we don't know what the players are really thinking. None of us ever do about anyone (athletes included) and I did not suggest I do, or anyone else does.

    I was asking the question: what do we sense the players might be thinking when it comes to who they would like to play with.

    We obviously don't know the answer.

    You may think it's "silly". But my guess is these guys have some very clear views and desires. My "guess" is they'd rather play with Kadri or Bozak. But again, who knows? And frankly, I don't care. It's hardly important in my life. I was just having fun writing a hockey piece, which I do here at VLM, just like thousands of bloggers/writers do every day around the world on all kinds of subjects.

    Fans speculate about things all the time. This is no "sillier", I would suggest, than most speculation that fans engage in.

  12. "c) Kessel’s reliance on Bozak, all that may, some nights, make it difficult for the long-time Leaf center to get the minutes some feel he deserves."

    What does this mean? Are you actually suggesting Kessel needs Bozak and that it's not the other way around? That Kessel would go to shit without Bozak? What a preposterous thing to say. Tyler Bozak has had two PPG wingers for the last two season, and yet is only a ~0.55 ppg player. It's pretty clear he's outclassed by his linemates.

    1. That isn't how I interpreted Michael's thoughts myself. I think you are undeniably correct that Bozak is not as good a player as Kessel, Lupul and JvR (who I assume are the wingers you're referring to). At the risk of putting words in Michael's mouth, I believe his point was there is an established partnership between Kessel and Bozak, and that while they've played together Kessel has been successful. He is wisely not speculating on how much better Kessel may have played with a different centre as his most frequent pivot, but rather accepting the value of the "bird in the hand" approach.

  13. I'm pretty sure most would agree Colin (SkinnyFish) that Kessel is a difference-maker on the line. But it would appear he enjoys playing with Bozak, who is a reasonably solid all-around player most nights. My "reliance" statement comes form the fact that they have played together so long at this point, they are friends off the ice and obviously enjoy playing together.

    Bozak has good vision, and can certainly make plays. Whether he is worth 5 million a year, as I've discussed here, is an entirely different question.

    I don't think I was suggesting Kessel would "go to shit" without Bozak. He'd no doubt be fine with any number of centers, including, say, Grabovski. As Greg said above, we don't know what players think/feel. Wonder what Kessel actually thinks...

  14. I think trading Grabbo would be a huge mistake. Bozak is abhorrent defensively where Grabbo is a very good 2-way player. Someone had to see their minutes drop between Grabbo and Bozak with the emergence of Kadri and the great defensive play of McClemment but it really should have been Bozak. I hope the Leafs let Bozak go UFA and re-establish Grabbo as their 2nd line center.

  15. To be clear, this was intended as a fun, speculative post. I was not suggesting the Leafs should trade Grabovski, simply that they obviously might consider it.

    We've been chatting here for weeks about what Bozak may "want" as a UFA- 5 million seems outlandish, but who knows with the market the way it is nowadays. That's not a salary I'm comfortable with as merely a fan, but my opinion doesn't much matter, obviously. I'm not sure I'd pay 4 million a year (in fact, I likely wouldn't) for Bozak, but again, who knows what the Leafs will do.

    I'd love to see Grabovski have a solid role here going forward, be happy and play his best hockey. And it may happen. Just not sure it's in the cards, but that can change, too. He may get big minutes and play tremendously well in the playoffs and then everyone's happy again. Thanks Chuck.

  16. Care to explain what makes you think Kessel relies on Bozak? From the stats that I have seen so far, there has never been a drop in Kessel's play when playing with other centers (especially not when considering Corsi and other advanced statistics. Also, whether it was setting up one of Bozak's goals or capitalizing on one of his passes, Kessel has been a part of most of Bozak's points while Bozak has not had nearly the same effect on Kessel. Just look at the games, it's usually Kessel and the other winger that are making the plays while Bozak just wins face-offs. It's also usually Kessel or his winger that manage to take the puck into the offensive zone, which Bozak struggles at and is more prone to dumping it in.

    At this point, Bozak's just being made to look like a better player than he is. It reminds me of Jonas Hoglund or the slew of wingers that Sundin had to play with before he got a couple of decent ones in Roberts and Mogilny. If anything, shouldn't we be trading Bozak while his value's high and retaining Grabovski while his value is low? Grabovski isn't on the decline and this season looks more like an outlier than anything else.

  17. Ruban, I certainly wouldn't say Bozak "just wins face-offs". His contributions are much broader than that. He can be a solid playmaker, and that obviously helps his linemates, though I'm not suggesting he is Stan Mikita or the world's finest defensive centerman.

    The use of the word "relies" hardly is meant to say, as I mentioned to Colin above, that Kessel somehow needs Bozak. I think we all understand that is not the case. I was simply saying that Kessel, by all accounts and from watching him play, seems to love playing with a guy who he has pretty nice chemistry with, and is buddies with off the ice. There is hardly anything sinister in my remark and it's not some kind of criticism of Kessel. I've defended Kessel here before. He's flawed like most guys but he's a high skill player. I've discussed that countless times here.

    Again, to be clear, the thrust of the article was not that the Leafs should keep Bozak and trade Grabovski. I don't recall saying at any point that they should deal him, simply that it is possible they might, which is not exactly earth-shattering news that a team might trade an unhappy player. It was fun speculation that Grabbo could be reunited with Burke.

  18. Wow stirred up the hornet's nest today didn't you. How dare you question the all powerful second coming of Gretzky otherwise known as Grabovski while praising the useless, probably eats babies too, Bozak.

  19. I thought I was just doing a fun, purely speculative post and asking a couple of reasonable questions for Leaf fans to consider, Willbur! Not sure why it was such an issue.....part of life when you write about the Leafs, I guess. Thanks Willbur.

  20. I find myself being a little grumpy on your behalf about some of these comments, Michael, for whatever that is worth.

    For my part, I hope that if they feel they don't want to re-sign all three of Grabbo, Bozak and Kadri, that they go after someone indisputably excellent to centre the top line. As you've pointed out, the Bozak-Kessel partnership, regardless of one's opinion around cause and effect, has enabled Kessel to score a lot of points. I wouldn't want to break it up for a tentative option (like Statsny, for example) where a lack of chemistry might reduce Kessel's effectiveness. He is, to all appearances a bit of a fragile soul, is wee Phil and I could easily see him playing worse alongside a player who, in and of themself, is a moderate upgrade on Bozak.

    Like most people, I wonder whether we've seen Kessel hit anything like his ceiling just yet and the thought of pushing to him to a new level of production with an elite centre at his side is incredibly alluring. For myself however, if I was targeting an elite player in the off-season, I would be more tempted to spend large on a defenseman.

  21. I appreciate your support very much, KiwiLeaf. Thank you for saying that.

    As for the Bozak discussion, I think most Leaf fans like him as a nice player who does a number of things pretty well. Is he a classic top-line guy? I can't make that argument. But he fits nicely with Kessel, and is a guy who can make plays, kill penalties and win faceoffs.

    Sure, if Joe Sakic was available, that might be a great fit. But you make a good point. Sometimes we have to be careful what we wish for. Another player perceived as a bit better than Bozak may not necessarily trigger increased production from Kessel.

    I guess I wonder: if Kessel really a 45-goal man with a truly elite centre, or is he what we have seen in Toronto for years- an exciting player who will score 35 a year like clockwork. And when his shots go in, he will look like dynamite - and when those shots miss the mark, well, he looks more like a guy with limitless potential who may never reach it.

    Thanks KiwiLeaf.