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(MARK BLINCH)
(MARK BLINCH)

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Grabovski emerges as Leafs leader Add to ...

Mikhail Grabovski's good luck charm covers the entire top of his left arm.

There, for the past six years, he has had a large tattoo that depicts himself as a young hockey player in full equipment with a woman's face looking over him.

It's not something he regrets getting.

"It's an angel," he said. "My special angel."

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Given the way his third season with the Toronto Maple Leafs has gone, it certainly seems as though Grabovski has had Lady Luck on his side.

Under the radar coming into training camp after a injury-shortened season a year ago, Grabovski has been the Leafs' top player for much of the campaign, gaining a reputation for having a terrific work ethic both on and off the ice.

Heading into Toronto's game Tuesday against the New York Islanders, he is among the top 25 goal scorers in the NHL and on pace for more than 30.

Grabovski has even earned a nickname from Colby Armstrong, the team's resident comedian.

"Crosbovski," Armstrong said. "Lately I've been calling him that. Like a Russian Sidney Crosby. He's been a great player for us. He's sick. Every game, the way he plays, he's fearless, relentless."

A native of Minsk, the Belarussian's English remains a work in progress, five years after arriving in North America unable to speak a word. Because he struggles in interviews, he receives far less attention than most of the Leafs, save for linemate and close friend Nikolai Kulemin, who has a similar language barrier to overcome.

While most of his teammates admitted they don't know Grabovski well away from the rink, many singled him out as the team's most valuable player on Monday.

"I feel like I'm still growing [as a player]" Grabovski said. "I have more experience. I'm stronger, in the head."

He added that he spent a lot of the off-season contemplating how he could improve and help the Leafs make the playoffs, something that has shown up during their recent run.

Since Toronto began a 10-3-4 stretch on Feb. 1, Grabovski has led all forwards with 20 minutes ice time a game, on average, and a plus-10 rating.

"What I like best [about Grabovski]is how serious and committed he is to being a complete player," Leafs general manager Brian Burke said. "He spends a great deal of time preparing mentally and is a gym rat. And he's tough and low-maintenance."

Grabovski has been on Burke's radar for a while, mainly thanks to his former assistant GM Bob Murray when both were in the Anaheim Ducks organization.

Murray encouraged Burke to try and acquire Grabovski in the spring of 2008 after he had a falling out with the Montreal Canadiens organization and was shopped around the league.

Ultimately, it was interim Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher who snapped him up, sending a prospect and a second-round pick to Montreal in a deal that has paid off in a big way more than two years later.

Burke's belief in Grabovski was why he gave him to a three-year deal worth $2.9-million (U.S.) a season in one of the first contracts he signed as GM of the Leafs.

The deal was widely questioned at the time and then again last season when Grabovski suffered a broken wrist and had just 10 goals and 35 points in 59 games, well off the numbers he had posted a year earlier.

"We signed Grabo for three years because we believed his [rookie]season wasn't a fluke," Burke said.

Two years in, the contract looks like a bargain, especially for a team where centre ice has been a weakness all season, with rookie Nazem Kadri and sophomore Tyler Bozak both failing to live up to expectations.

Had Grabovski not emerged the way he has, the Leafs would have been in deep trouble down the middle and far further from the playoff race than the five points by which they trail eighth place.

"He really has done so much for our team," Armstrong said. "He's been our best player all year long."

 

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