In the end, Mikhail Grabovski no longer fit in with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Especially under new coach Randy Carlyle.
The Leafs bought out Grabovski’s contract on Thursday afternoon, spending a little more than $14-million to punt out the door a player who had become incredibly divisive in Leafs Nation primarily for his lack of offensive production.
The decision frees up another $5.5-million on the Leafs cap heading into Friday’s free agency period, but there remains a hole at centre that will likely be just as pricy to fill.
The move was a mild surprise, if only because GM Dave Nonis had spoken of Grabovski returning to Toronto and challenging for more ice time just a few days earlier at the draft, seemingly hopeful of a rebound season.
But for those who had followed Grabovski’s difficult 2013 campaign closely – a tumultuous half year filled with illness and controversy – the news was less than a shocker.
The relationship between a team and key offensive player has rarely hit a downward spiral this quickly.
Grabovski had become an unlikely impact centre under the Leafs previous coach Ron Wilson, scoring 47 goals in in the final 139 games under his watch and turning into a quirky fan favourite.
But after Toronto bottomed out after a strong start to the 2011-12 season, Wilson was fired on March 2 with only 18 games left in the year.
Four days later, after just one game under Carlyle, the Leafs gave Grabovski the five-year extension for $27.5-million that he would play just one season under.
At the time, the money was handed over somewhat begrudgingly, after months of tense negotiations with Grabovski’s agent playing hardball and the organization desperate given its lack of options down the middle.
The Leafs front office regretted the contract quickly, especially as Nazem Kadri blossomed into an NHL player in short order.
From the beginning, it was also clear Grabovski didn’t fit under Carlyle, who used him dramatically different than Wilson, putting him on the ice for mostly defensive zone faceoffs and against other teams’ top lines more often than most forwards in the NHL.
After scoring more goals than all but 11 centres leaguewide in his previous two seasons, Grabovski was playing a role very similar to defence-first players like Boyd Gordon, Mike Fisher, Brandon Sutter and Maxime Talbot.
He didn’t appear to enjoy the shift but also didn’t complain publicly, even as he played through a difficult digestive ailment that affected his health and wasn’t revealed until late in the year when he visited New York area hospitals for testing after one road trip.
The combined effect of the new role and his health issues took their toll, and Grabovski’s offensive totals fell dramatically to just 16 points in 48 games.
That drop put a player Wilson had often praised as his most hardworking at odds with the new coaching staff, who seemed to have more difficulty communicating with Grabovski than the previous regime.
All the while, his numbers were very much in line with those playing comparable roles around the NHL. Teammate Nikolai Kulemin’s 23 points likely sets the high water mark in that department, but the likes of Gordon, Fisher and Sutter all fell in Grabovski’s range.
But that disconnect between his role, the money he made and what he was producing was a season-long one between the coach and his highest paid forward, and it never properly healed.
Grabovski was reportedly incensed upon learning about the buyout, which came the day before his wedding in Toronto. In an interview with TSN on Thursday afternoon, he blamed Carlyle for his poor numbers and called him a “stupid coach.”
“I don’t feel any support from this idiot," Grabovski said at one point.
The Leafs only public comment was a prepared statement from Nonis stating that “this was not an easy decision to make” and thanking Grabovski for his contributions.
“This is a roster move that will give us salary cap flexibility moving forward,” Nonis said.
There was much discussion when Carlyle was hired just how he would adapt the Leafs then struggling roster to play a grittier, meat-and-potatoes style, and ultimately Grabovski became the highest profile casualty of that, even as the team made its surprising climb in the standings.
Now the question becomes how does Nonis use his newfound wealth to find improvements elsewhere after already filling Grabovski’s defensive minutes by acquiring Dave Bolland in a draft-day trade.
Toronto enters Friday’s free agency period with $24.5-million salary cap space – more than 28 other NHL teams – but more than 50 per cent of that is earmarked for the team’s restricted free agents, who include Nazem Kadri, Jonathan Bernier, Carl Gunnarsson and Cody Franson.
Once they are factored in, Nonis is really working with between $10- and $12-million to fill his remaining holes, which include a No. 1 centre, second-line right winger and help on defence.
Thursday’s talk had them still in the mix for the services of centre Tyler Bozak, who has been seeking a long-term deal for just under $5-million a season.
The other options for the Leafs cap dollars will be the likes of Stephen Weiss and David Clarkson, two veterans who could trade the relative obscurity of playing in Florida and New Jersey to come home for big dough.
Grabovski, meanwhile, shouldn’t have difficulty finding a home, as he would be a strong fit in Detroit, Nashville or Washington for a more modest salary and in a more offensive role than he had under Carlyle.
It’s even possible he becomes one of the better bargains out of all the many players who have been paid handsomely to go away this summer.
But that turnaround wasn’t going to happen in Toronto.Report Typo/Error