Theme: “The greatest virtues are those which are most useful to other persons.”
Being the second line center for the Washington Capitals has been like looking at some perverse hockey version of a game show almost since the 2004-2005 lockout. Jeff Halpern, Kris Beech, Michael Nylander, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Morrison, Mathieu Perreault, Marcus Johansson, Jason Arnott, Cody Eakin, Keith Aucoin, Mike Ribeiro, Brooks Laich… come on down!
Laich would have been the next contestant to play center on a semi-permanent basis on “What’s My (Second) Line?” In fact, the team professed as much early in the unrestricted free agent signing period this past summer after the last contestant – Mike Ribiero – departed Washington for Phoenix.
That was then. The Caps signed another new contestant to fill the spot when Mikahil Grabovski signed on the bottom line of a one-year/$3.0 million contract on August 23rd. Grabovski comes to the Caps at something of a discount, his new deal substantially less than the five-year/$27.5 million deal he signed with Toronto in March 2012 from which he was bought out by the Maple Leafs last July.
The problem with the Leafs, such as it was, seems to have been his production. Here was a player who, in his previous four seasons in Toronto compiled a per-82 game scoring line of 23-31-54, plus-3. The 2013 season was quite another matter – nine goals, 16 points, a minus-10, and almost four fewer minutes of ice time per game than he averaged in 2010-2012, when he recorded a career high 29 goals.
Why? Well, the player had an explanation…
"I play in the [expletive] Russian KHL, I make lots of [expletive] points and what's going to happen? He make me [expletive] play on the fourth line and he put me in the playoffs on the fourth line and third line again. Yeah, I don't score goals. I need to work more about that. I know that. But if you feel support from your coach [you'll find success]. I don't feel any support from this [expletive] idiot…[former Leafs coach Ron] Wilson [expletive] pushed me same hard as this but don't be an [expletive] with me. If you don't like something tell [expletive] right away, don't put me on the bench, healthy scratch [me] or something. Don't put me on a [expletive] third line and then [expletive] play me six minutes in a game."
It would be hard to argue with Grabovski’s characterization of his use by head coach Randy Carlyle (the embellishing language notwithstanding). Among Maple Leaf forwards playing in at least half the team’s games last season, only one – Nikolai Kulemin – had a lower offensive zone start value at 5-on-5 than Grabovski’s value (36.7 percent; source: behindthenet.ca). It is no coincidence that Grabovski skated more than 100 more minutes with Kulemin than he did with any other forward at 5-on-5. Compare that to each of the previous two seasons when Grabovski was fifth among Toronto forwards playing in at least half of the team’s games in offensive zone starts at 5-on-5.
Mikhail Grabovski is not necessarily a playmaker in the classic mold exemplified by, say, a Nicklas Backstrom. Grabovski is more of a goal scorer. In fact, over the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons only four centers in the league recorded more goals while playing fewer total minutes than Grabovski – Jason Spezza, Johan Franzen, Jeff Carter, and Evgeni Malkin. Not bad company, that.
Even as badly as he was used last season, Grabovski still managed to finish 202nd of 395 forwards playing in at least 20 games in goals scored for/on ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 last season (source: behindthenet.ca). Only four times since the 2004-2005 lockout have Washington centers playing the position on a full-time basis recorded 20 goals in a season, twice by Nicklas Backstrom and twice by Dainius Zubrus. Grabovski provides a threat the Caps have not had in that position in recent years.
Why does a team buy out a player after one year of a five-year contract extension? That is almost $1.8 million a year Toronto is on the hook for until the end of the 2020-2021 season (source: capgeek.com). Seriously, though, if Caps fans are looking at Grabovski as the replacement for Mike Ribeiro, one thing to look out for might be his production on the power play. Even in his two best years in Toronto he was not a big playmaker on the man advantage. In both 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 he finished the year with five power play assists despite getting more than three minutes a game in the 2010-2011 season and more than two minutes a game the following season.
The Big Question… Will his being in a “contract” year be an inspiration or a distraction?
Grabovski has played through three “contract” years in his career (seasons in which the deal on which he was playing was expiring). The first one, which seems to have uncertain importance here, was his 2007-2008 season. He was a 24-year old who had only three games of NHL experience with the Montreal Canadiens. In the 2007-2008 season he split time between Montreal and Hamilton in the AHL, dressing for 24 games with the Canadiens and going 3-6-9. For his efforts he was traded to Toronto. The Maple Leafs signed him on the day after the trade to a one-year/$850,000 contract to play the 2008-2009 season.
In that 2008-2009 season one might have seen Grabovski as a player playing for bigger money with his new team. It showed. He recorded his first 20-goal season, going 20-28-48 in 78 games. As a restricted free agent he was re-signed to a three-year/$8.7 million contract. The following year, his first under the new contract, he missed almost a third of the season to a broken wrist. He came back in 2010-2011 to post a career-high 29 goals, setting himself up for his next contract year. He produced – 23-28-51 in 74 games – and was rewarded with a five-year/$27.5 million contract to start running with the 2012-2013 season.
In the end…
Mikhail Grabovski will be 30 years old before season’s end. It is entirely possible that he will be playing the 2013-2014 season for what will be his last big NHL payday (any of this sounding familiar, Mike Ribeiro fans?). There is nothing to suggest in the limited history of his “contract” years that this will be a distraction. In fact, he has performed rather well in two instances in which he was playing for large raises.
The issue, though, might be fit. Grabovski has a history as a possession stud. The question is not whether he will or will not fulfill that promise (we suspect he will), but the extent to which possession translates into performance. Are there goals at the end of this? It might make for a bit of an odd second line with Martin Erat and Grabovski switching roles from time to time, Erat being more of a “playmaker” Grabovski more of the “finisher.”
It suggests a sorting out period on the second line that would hardly be unexpected, especially given that Erat, Troy Brouwer, and Grabovski have never played together, and Erat and Brouwer together almost not at all. That said, in the end, it seems likely that two things will happen. First, Grabovski is not going to suffer being used in an way that is not useful. Adam Oates will see to that. Second, things will work out for Grabovski in terms of having the kind of year that will draw more lucrative, longer term offers after the season. Now, whether that works out for the Caps? Stay tuned… we might be right where we’ve been just about every year over the last several years.
Projection: 80 games, 23-33-56, plus-12
Photo: Claus Andersen/Getty Images North America