Before Leafs fans scoff at the idea of having Mikhail Grabovski slated as their most coveted No. 1 center, you must look back to a year ago and see where he was at in his career.
This time last year, most Leaf fans, myself included, started to write Grabovski off on the Leafs roster. I even mentioned in a previous article from last year that he had no place with the Leafs.
Not only did he shut me up, but most of Leafs nation as well.
Throughout most of his early career, Grabovski has been used to taking a back seat. He was passed over by every single team during the 2002 and 2003 drafts where he was eligible and wasn't drafted until the 150th pick of the fifth round in 2004.
Even then. the Montreal Canadiens only discovered him when they were scouting fellow Belarussian Andrei Kostitsyn the previous year.
The Canadiens picking Grabovski was so off the board that hockeysfuture had no analysis for him at the time. It wasn't until the 2006-2007 season when he was giving the rating of 7.0C which meant that he could go anywhere from a second line forward to a fourth line/minor league guy.
Leafs fans got to see a lot of his offensive upside during the 2008-2009 season when he notched 20 goals and 48 points in 78 games. However, he was seen as a defensive liability whenever he stepped on the ice.
During the 2009-2010 season, fans began to lose faith in Grabovski. He was inconsistent, he seemed to have lost his scoring touch, he was a defensive liability, he was a puck hog, and overall it just seemed like his heart was not in the game.
He also had an injury riddled season that only saw him play 59 games, where he scored 10 goals and 35 points. Personally I began to think that he was a bust and was even listing him as a "throw in" in various trade proposals.
What some people sometimes overlook is that the 2009-2010 was only Mikhail's second full NHL season. Though he was not considered a rookie during the 2008-2009 season, this could easily have been his equivalent of the "sophomore slump."
It's amazing what wonders a year can make.
Everyone knows how much Grabovski meant to Leafs this past season and was probably the most important piece of the now titled "Mac-Russian" line.
Not only did he score 29 goals and 58 points while centering one of the best lines in the NHL, he was also one of the team's leaders as well as improving his all-round game drastically being one of the team's best penalty killers.
I don't know about anyone else but I personally did not see Grabovski improving this much in one offseason. That is why I started to think what if he could do it again?
What if he could make another big jump to become that player that all Leaf fans keep looking for in Brad Richards, Paul Stastny, and Jeff Carter to name a few.
I know that that may seem like a big stretch of the imagination but in all honesty if there was a player on the current Maple Leafs roster who could do it it would be Mikhail Grabovski.
Grabovski was already known as an above-average puck handler and an offensive threat. The only questions surrounding him was his complete game in his own end and would turn the puck over way to frequently. In actuality he reminds me a little bit of Pavel Datsyuk.
I know I'm grasping at straws with that comparison but the more I look at the two of them the more and more similarities I see.
Both of them were eligible to be drafted two years earlier than they were (Datsyuk eligible for 1996, drafted in 1998 and Grabovski eligible for 2002, drafted in 2004). Both were deemed excellent puck handlers but needing fast improvements in their overall game.
Both played another two years in the Russian Super League before coming to North America, Datsyuk made the jump to the NHL right away, whereas Grabovski needed to develop a little more in the AHL.
And finally, both of them had their breakout season at the age of 26, Datsyuk scoring 30 goals and 68 points in 2003-2004 and Grabovski scoring 29 goals and 58 points in 2010-2011.
In my honest opinion, Datsyuk had the much easier road to success than Grabovski did. He got to play second fiddle to arguably one of the best lineups of all time with the likes of Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shannahan, Brett Hull, Nicklas Lidstrom Sergei Federov, Igor Larionov, Chris Chelios, and Dominic Hasek.
Actually come to think of it he was more of a third or fourth fiddle playing behind all that winning experience and leadership. Ken Holland can even be quoted as saying that the leadership qualities of Steve Yzerman and Igor Larionov helped shape Datsyuk into the player he is today.
Datsyuk was also able to play three full seasons in the old NHL where physical play was a lot more intense and gritty than it is today.
He was able to capitalize and create scoring chances when games were a lot tighter defensively so that when the rules changed after the lockout, it just benefited the style he mastered even more.
When looking at how Datsyuk was molded perfectly into the player that he is today it's hard to believe how much Grabovski has achieved relatively on his own.
The only form of leadership Mikhail could've looked up to at any point in his young career would be the one season stint that Curtis Joseph made back with the Leafs or playing briefly with Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev in Montreal.
Other than that, he had to learn everything himself and become the player he is without anyone look up to.
I know that fans may think that it's a little bit of a stretch to be comparing Grabovski to Datsyuk but after this season, I can see some minor similarities between the two. While Grabovski may not have been deemed a future star in his rookie season like Datsyuk was, he was still able to put up solid numbers.
It's impossible to determine where a players career will take them. Do you think that Ken Holland and the Red Wings brass knew what they were getting when they drafted Datsyuk 171th overall? Or the Buffalo Sabers when they drafted Ryan Miller 138th overall?
People like to develop this notion that a players scouting report when they are drafted will determine the rest of their career but that isn't true. There are even two examples of that in the Leafs own backyard with late draft picks Matt Frattin and Jerry D'Amigo.
Scouting reports on the both of them were modest to say the least but now they are listed as some of the Leafs top prospects.
A player's attitude and dedication define him, not what everyone else says about him and that's what Mikhail Grabovski has been doing for years now: overcoming the odds stacked against him.
I don't think anyone knows what Grabovski's mind-set heading into the off-season was. Was he happy with himself? Did he think there was room for improvement?
Is he dedicated to making himself a better player? All of these are questions that only Grabo knows the answer to. We already know he can be a lethal second-line center, but I wonder what he would be like if he were to improve further.
As much as I would love to see Burke acquire a player like Carter, Richards, Stastny, Stamkos, etc. I don't want him to be emptying out the cupboards for one of them.
Leaf fans would like to believe that Nazem Kadri or Joe Colborne could be that top line guy for the Leafs in the near future and no, I'm starting to think that acquiring a top guy may not be in the best interest of the Leafs.
I am very curious to see what Brian Burke has planned this off-season and hopefully it will make the Leafs a playoff team come September, but if Burke is unable to get his man for the right price I think that Grabovski could potentially take the reins.
This would let Kadri grow and mature as a player and with guys like Patrick Sharp and Zach Parise slated to be unrestricted free agents in 2012, Burke could go after one of them.
Would love to hear what you think, so comment away!!
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