For the Toronto Maple Leafs, many things have gone wrong. In danger of missing the playoffs again, the GM making trades to try to build his team, and many games representing missed opportunities to simply be better. Among the bright spots though, the line of Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nik Kulemin has surprised many observers, as each has posted career stats this season and formed the Leafs’ best forward unit. MacArthur was an unknown as a free agent signing, Kulemin is one of the few Leafs draft picks in recent history who looks like he may be a very good NHLer. But Grabovski… he’s likely the biggest surprise of all.
Leaf fans had wondered why we ever got this guy. Reminded some of Nik Borschevsky or Sergei Berezin, only not as good at goal scoring, and gets into trouble with women in bars. Yet, he’s turned it around, and remarkably well. Leads the team in goal scoring with 24 as of tonight, second in team scoring. And he’s learned to be responsible defensively, currently a plus 8, and getting penalty kill time.
Tonight against Boston, Grabovski was half of the offense (the other was Kessel finally breaking out against his old mates). But, the story of Grabovski’s night isn’t all goals, and it (and some commentary from Nick Kypreos) made me wonder.
You see, with the Leafs down 1-0, Grabovski was chasing a puck behind Boston’s net, and got absolutely crunched by Zdeno Chara. Like, face rub on the dasher and glass, down for a minute or 2, crumpled. Chara got a boarding penalty, and truth is it was not all his fault, he is 10 inches taller than Grabo. There wasn’t any intent to injure, just a penalty. Kessel got a quick goal, and on some level, Grabo is a hero; he went to the dirty areas, he paid the price, his team got an advantage that allowed them to even things up. Even better, Mikhail was able to wait out Tim Thomas and score to put his team up early in the second.
Later in the third, Grabovski and Chara meet again behind the net. No penalty, just a hard hit, but… well, Mikhail was dummied. I mean, came off the glass, eyes were dead, stumbled and fell to the ice, tried to get up and fell over the icing line, needed help getting back to the bench, dummied. Takes some smelling salts, but I don’t think he even missed a shift. What does he do? Only picks up the puck in the neutral zone, fights through 2 defenders, and puts a shot over Thomas for the winner with 1 minute left.
Like, freaking heroic. The heart on the kid, something this team has lacked. In of all places, Boston, where they never win.
And then, in the post-game, Kypreos brings up a good point. For Grabovski’s own safety, he should never have been out there to score that winner. The guy obviously suffered a brain injury, if not on the first hit, the second for sure. If you find the clip on the ‘net, watch it, I know you would agree. And it was Kypreos who commented he was struggling with it. Say what you will about Kyppy, but we know how he made his career in the NHL, and the guy was forced to retire (as many have been) due to head trauma issues. So, here’s Grabovski… tonight, he shows he’s a warrior, he’s tough. Not only is he gonna take a couple hits from a behemoth like Chara, but he’s gonna score 2 including the winner, at a time when his team is still thinking playoffs are not impossible. And Kypreos (and myself) are saying this is a guy I want on my team. Man, this guy is like a true leader right now on this Maple Leafs team.
And at the same time, Kyppy says (and I know) Grabovski should have left the game, been taken out and sent to a hospital for examinations. He’s a young guy, 26. For God’s sake, he just had his first child, a daughter, like 6 weeks ago. Head injuries are the biggest issue the NHL faces right now, and the number of players, from Pat LaFontaine and the Lindros brothers and now seeing Sidney Crosby sitting out, and Marc Savard possibly retiring… For his own safety, Grabovski should have been lifted.
I don’t have an answer or a suggestion even. I’ve seen the hits before. I’ve winced and felt bad for guys who take an elbow or a shoulder to the noggin, or bounce their cranium against the glass or ice. But as I saw Grabovski named the game’s first star, as I praised his effort to help the team I cheer for win, I realized again just how much danger he really could have been in. We all know one’s health is of utmost priority, not the outcome of a game, no matter how much money may be involved. I love the courage and dedication Grabo showed tonight to perform at his highest for his team. And I am struggling somewhat with the idea that his performance might be a lesson to ignore the pain, ignore the danger, and do all you can to prove your toughness. It’s probably the wrong message for a league that is seeing many of it’s players suffering serious injury and risking permanent damage.