By Will Salvarinas
Unless you live under a rock, chances are you know how Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke builds his teams. He prefers a style comprised of truculence and belligerence, allocating his forwards into top-6 and bottom-6 placements. Burke has believed in this style of play for years, and obsessively abides by it. The bombastic GM has certainly made a mark in his first full season at the helm, letting it be known that if you do not fit into his blueprint, you’re likely going to play elsewhere. And one player who may be on the outs, no longer fitting into this model, could be 25-year-old Mikhail Grabovski.
Despite a very promising rookie season with the Buds, which saw the Belorussian centre put up 48 points, his sophomore year failed to live up to the lofty expectations set out for him. Last summer, Burke awarded Grabovski with a new 3-year pact worth 2.9 million dollars per year. However, the skilled forward took a step back during this past campaign, placing his immediate future with the club in serious doubt.
The Grabovski quandary is compounded with the emergence of solid organizational depth at the centre spot. The impressive seasons of both Tyler Bozak, and top prospect Nazem Kadri of the London Knights, may end up placing the Belorussian on the trade block this off-season.
Grabovski has played centre his entire career, and likely has no business playing the wing on a Burke-built squad, or for that matter, sliding down to assume the third-line centre role on the team. Burke prefers grittier specialists to perform the bottom-6 forward tasks, and with the emergence of Bozak and the need for Kadri to be in the top-6, Grabovski appears to be devoid of a role with the club.
Bozak came into the Leafs organization similar to any other young prospect, amid extraordinary hype. Despite the expectations though, his AHL performance was rather ordinary and it wasn’t until he rose to the NHL that Leafs Nation got a full glimpse of his exceptional talents. The Denver University product finished first in points-per-game among all rookies this past season, and maintained an impressive 56 percent success rate in the faceoff circle. Bozak also possessed great chemistry with prolific sniper Phil Kessel, and moving into the 2010-2011 campaign he will seek to replicate his wonderful first season with the Leafs.
Another competitor for Grabovski will be the 7th overall selection from last season’s Entry Draft, Nazem Kadri. The shifty centre plied his trade in London of the Ontario Hockey League this past season, amassing 93 points in only 56 games. More impressively, Kadri lifted his game dramatically come playoff time where he rarely had a quiet shift. In 12 games Kadri netted 27 points, translating to a bewildering 2.25 points per game. Now whether or not those numbers can translate to the NHL game remains to be seen, yet it’s clear the Leafs do have a talented player at the centre position on their hands. Burke has often stated that to make next year’s squad, Kadri will have to qualify for a top-6 forward position, beating out the likes of Grabovski. Both Coach Ron Wilson and Brian Burke have speculated that Kadri should be on the team next year, putting the role of the Belorussian into serious question.
Does a market exist for the enigmatic Belorussian? He possesses a wealth of talent and despite a poor sophomore season, remains a capable NHL player with a vast range of skills. His speed and playmaking prowess would make him a good candidate to step into any team’s forward group, and could do damage alongside a cast of better wingers.
That being said, he struggles inside the faceoff circle and can be a liability within his own zone. He also carries with him a myriad of well-documented shenanigans. During his tenure in Toronto, Grabovski has feuded with teammates on a seemingly weekly basis, and his implication in a bar fight last season made a bad year even worse. Not to mention his petulant feud with the Kostistsyn brothers in Montreal. His less than stellar performance on the ice, and added baggage off of it, make him a risky acquisition for any team to make this off-season.
The emergence of Nazem Kadri has really forced Burke’s hand in this debate. A decision must be made soon as to what to do with the enigmatic Grabovski, and more and more it appears as if the only way to unload him will be through a creative trade.
Burke has let it be known the Leafs are more than willing to receive bad contracts in trades, if it means receiving assets in return. If such a deal is made available to the Leafs’ GM this summer, he would be wise in trying to include Grabovski going the other way.
Although he has had his issues there is no denying his talent. Perhaps a change of scenery and an accompaniment of more talented wingers would let the centre develop into the player Leafs Nation thought he would become.
For now, all the Leafs can do is move on with a promising duo down the middle of Bozak and Kadri. Despite their diminutive stature, the two are gifted playmakers, both exuding great competitiveness and a will to win. It will be up to Burke to allow himself the maneuverability to supplement the development of his young centres with a group of capable players around them.
The Grabovski dilemma coincides with the theme of a Leafs’ off-season comprised of uncertainty. Although Burke made a commitment to the player last summer, it’s time the brash boss of the Buds swallows his pride and unloads the centre for the advancement of the franchise.