When what Randy Carlyle says about Mikhail Grabovski’s troubles is boiled down, the reason he has now been eclipsed by Nazem Kadri is that he simply doesn’t compete hard enough.
It starts at the beginning for hockey players, the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach said Monday, with faceoffs. Grabovski loses too many of them, which puts his line in a defensive posture right off the bat, and he doesn’t use his speed to get into the offensive zone quickly enough on the forecheck.
“We’ve talked with him on numerous occasions and the conversation is based on a starting point,” Carlyle said. “The starting point for him is if we could start with the puck more in the faceoff circle. The second would be to use his speed and his ability to get on the puck on the forecheck.
“We know the kind of player he can be. The conversations have been open and up front. We’re going to continue working on them.”
In the meantime, the veteran, who signed a five-year contract at an average annual salary of $5.5-million (all currency U.S.) last spring intended to reflect his status as the No. 2 centre, was slotted even further into the defensive side of things Monday. Carlyle handed the blue practice sweater once worn by Grabovski over to Kadri, who is now clearly the second-line centre.
Grabovski was issued the third-line red sweater and paired with Clarke MacArthur and Colton Orr, which would appear to make his split from long-time winger Nikolai Kulemin permanent. This was a second indignity after Grabovski was forced to sit and watch 10 Leafs shooters summoned instead of him last Saturday when they lost a shootout to the Winnipeg Jets to run their winless streak to five games.
Carlyle cautioned reporters about reading too much into the line shuffle (there is another day of practice left before the Leafs meet the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday at the Air Canada Centre) but then started talking about how much he hates change.
“I would rather not have to change people or move people around,” Carlyle said. “It’s a clear indication at times that we’re not playing the way we need to play. If we’re not getting the desired result from matchups of two people we put together, we’re not averse to putting other people in there.”
At least Grabovski has a sense of humour about his situation. When someone asked if his struggles this season (11 points in 29 games, one point in his last six) could be attributed to self-imposed pressure to live up to the new contract, Grabovski demurred.
“I don’t think so. Anyway, I don’t spend money. My wife spends all the money so I don’t think about that,” Grabovski said and then paused, thinking about how that was going to play on Twitter in a few minutes. “Sorry, wife.”
Otherwise, Grabovski said he is “happy” with his circumstances because the Leafs are still in playoff position. As for that faceoff problem, he said Carlyle “tell me I need to fix faceoffs so I fix faceoffs.”
Well, Grabovski did win 10 of 15 against the Jets, well above his season’s winning percentage of 50.8. But Carlyle is not yet mollified, which is where the compete thing comes in.
The coach is not demanding Grabovski win every faceoff he takes or even two-thirds of them. What he wants is someone who will tie up the opposing centre at worst even if he loses the faceoff. But if a centre loses a defensive faceoff cleanly without touching the other centre, as Grabovski does too often, he is never in position to block the shot on goal that often comes quickly back through the faceoff dot.
Tying up the centre is especially important in the defensive zone because the defending team crowds all five skaters around the faceoff circle, which means they have more players available to fight for the puck as long as they have a chance at it.
“Other people have to be in position because [Grabovski’s] job in most situations is to protect their centre, defend their individual guy who won [the faceoff] in a one-on-one battle,” Carlyle said. “You don’t always have to win it. You should at least tie it. The theory is we have five guys closer to the puck than they do. They just have three.
“So if we can out-compete in those situations off a tie, we have more bodies in position to grab the puck. It sounds easy in theory but it’s not that easy. That’s the area of their game they have to take to the next level.”