Mikhail Grabovski’s new contract, which moves him ahead of Phil Kessel as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ highest-paid forward next season, is based on the free-agent market and not on his standing among the NHL’s centres.
Such is life in the NHL under the salary cap where general managers have to pay players based on how good they think they might be in the future as well as how much they have already contributed to the team. That’s why Ales Hemsky, 28, who is five months older than Grabovski, managed to get $10-million (all currency U.S.) over two years out of the Edmonton Oilers. This despite the fact he is now in his seventh NHL season, is often injured and has only hit the 20-goal mark twice. But don’t say that within earshot of an Oiler fan.
The Hemsky contract, which was dished out by Burke’s good friend Kevin Lowe, the Oilers’ president, plus market forces ensured Grabovski was granted his wish to stay in Toronto.
Thinking of what Grabovski might command as an unrestricted free agent in July, in a year when the only other comparable centre on the market will be Olli Jokinen, is likely what prompted Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke to agree to a five-year contract with an annual salary-cap hit of $5.5-million. I can’t say that for sure because Burke’s only comment on Tuesday was “none of your business.”
Not a bad deal, considering that two years ago, coming off a season in which Grabovski was slowed by injuries, his $2.9-million salary and 35 points in 59 games had Burke shopping him around the NHL. His smallish 5-foot-11, 183-pound frame and penchant for one-way play also did not endear him to the Leafs boss.
However, Grabovski remained a Maple Leaf when the rest of the NHL’s GMs agreed with Burke that a $2.9-million salary for him was too much. The slow development of Nazem Kadri and the regression of centre Tyler Bozak in 2010-11, along with Grabovski’s breakout season of 29 goals and 58 points in 81 games, further guaranteed his continued employment.
Inflation and a thin market took care of the rest, although Grabovski’s up-and-down play this season (45 points in 59 games) was the cause of some concern. In his first game under new head coach Randy Carlyle, though, Grabovski was flying against his old team, potting two goals and an assist on the Montreal Canadiens last Saturday.
This doesn’t mean negotiations were smooth. Burke and Gary Greenstin, Grabovski’s agent, started talking about the contract last October. Greenstin said the negotiations were “complicated” but didn’t say why, although word is the sticking point was term, with the player wanting a six-year deal and Burke looking for four years at best.
Greenstin said if Grabovski became a free agent on July 1, he would command “different numbers” as “one of the best centres available.” Burke obviously thought so, too, and with Grabovski wanting to remain a Maple Leaf it was easier to make the deal.
But Burke has the same problem he did last summer. He still needs a big, playmaking centre for Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. Tim Connolly was not the answer and former head coach Ron Wilson realized Grabovski and Kessel did not mesh because both want the puck.
There are none available on the free-agent market, which means Burke will have to once again explore a trade. In the meantime, having Grabovski locked up as the No. 2 centre for $5.5-million a year is not bad despite the uncertainty of next season’s salary cap thanks to the collective bargaining that lies ahead.
And if the next NHL season is interrupted by a lockout, some of that $27.5-million is paid out in a signing bonus so the Grabovskis can tide themselves over.