Four years after he was traded away, Mikhail Grabovski still relishes the chance to play against the Montreal Canadiens.
The Toronto Maple Leafs centre held court with reporters from both cities Friday, and readily admitted he wouldn’t mind putting another dagger in the Habs’ already slim playoff hopes.
Montreal enters Saturday’s meeting at the Air Canada Centre trailing the eighth place Leafs by nine points in the Eastern Conference.
Grabovski was drafted by the Canadiens as a 20-year-old out of the Russia’s top pro league in 2004, but ultimately played only 27 games with Montreal.
He said the fact he never got much of an opportunity motivates him even now.
“A little bit,” Grabovski said. “I like playing against Montreal. They’ve still got some guys who I played with: [Andrei]Kostitsyn, [Carey]Price, [Josh]Gorges. So I enjoy playing that team. Always.”
Grabovski also always seems to become a focal point in games against the Canadiens.
In the early days of his tenure in Toronto, he was continually attempting to fight Sergei Kostitsyn, a fellow Belarusian and Andrei’s brother, whenever the two teams played.
Rumour has it there was a love interest at the centre of their spat, but the feud has subsided over time – mainly due to the younger Kostitsyn moving on to Nashville.
The history is there, though. Grabovski has 14 points and 56 penalty minutes (30 per cent of his NHL career total) in 21 games against Montreal, something he only chuckles about now.
“The players who I didn’t like, they don’t play any more in Montreal,” Grabovski said in typically cryptic fashion. “They play on other teams.”
“I don’t think he really got a whole lot of a chance there,” linemate Clarke MacArthur said of Grabovski’s time in Montreal. “He always wants to prove that he could have been a really good player there, which he would have been. Against your old team, you always want to do that.”
Now 28, Grabovski is the father of two young children – ages 1 and two months – and appears to have grown out of whatever issues he had in Montreal.
Third on the Maple Leafs in scoring, he is on pace for his first 60-point season, after breaking out for 58 a year ago.
A lot of that production has come in the last 20 games, as he has 23 points (10 goals) since Christmas.
Off the ice, Grabovski has become a popular topic of conversation of late because he needs a new contract – something made all the more apparent given his agent, Gary Greenstin, has been in Toronto attending most practices and games the past two weeks.
Negotiations with Toronto general manager Brian Burke have been kept quiet, but it’s expected a deal will get done in the coming months.
A pending unrestricted free agent, Grabovski should get a substantial raise – likely into at least the $4.75-million range – from the $2.9-million (U.S.) average salary he has earned the last three years.
He remains more focused, however, on getting to the playoffs for the first time and that means beating a few of his old friends from Montreal on Saturday.
“My contract, I’ll start thinking about that when I finish the season,” Grabovski said. “But if they want to do something right now, they [can]talk to my agent. I’m staying away from that.”
Toronto’s Canadian trail
The Leafs’ upcoming schedule is deceptively difficult, even though their four games in a row against Canadian-based opponents includes three teams ranked 11th or lower in their conference.
After facing the Habs on Saturday, Toronto’s road trip through Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver next week means playing three teams that are a combined 44-22-9 in their own buildings. The Flames and Oilers may not be powerhouses, but they are pretty hard to beat at home.
The Leafs started the 2011-12 season winning five games in a row against Canadian teams. Since then, however, they have gone only 3-7-0 against that group.