If there’s a Toronto Maple Leafs player who’s a little underappreciated around the league, it’s probably Mikhail Grabovski.
Although you can make an argument for Carl Gunnarsson, too.
But when some of those trade rumours began to start up last month with Grabovski’s name included, it appeared perhaps he was underappreciated by Leafs management as well.
Brian Burke, however, was quick to dispel that talk, saying that even though Grabovski was a pending unrestricted free agent, that didn’t necessarily mean he was going anywhere.
And looking at what he’s done of late, you have to wonder how the Leafs can do anything but re-sign him on a long-term deal.
Last season, when a lot went wrong for Toronto early on, Grabovski was the team’s best player, rising to the occasion with a career year both offensively (29 goals and 29 assists) and defensively (a team leading plus-14).
After a slow start this year, the 28-year-old Belarussian has again been the best Leaf on the ice over the last 15 games, with 12 points in his last six and 20 during Toronto’s 10-4-1 run since the start of 2012.
His scoring pace is now better than it was a year ago – 31 goals, 68 points over 82 games – despite the fact he’s spent most of the season with a bit of an anchor on his line in Nikolai Kulemin.
While Grabovski doesn’t play with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, there’s not really any argument that he isn’t Toronto’s best centre right now – and that’s a position where this team needs to add rather than subtract.
And he’s definitely not underappreciated by his teammates, who look at him as one of the team’s on-ice leaders.
Consider what Tyler Bozak, one of the team’s young centres, has to say about Grabovski’s value to this team and how he looks up to him.
“He does everything pretty much,” Bozak said. “He plays good defensively, he’s fast, he’s strong, he’s got a good shot. He makes great passes. He’s a complete player who’s great at everything.
“He’s 100 per cent a top two [line] centre in the league. He does everything right. He’s not the tallest guy, but in the league these days, you don’t have to be tall. You’ve just got to be strong and have good balance and he’s got all of that.
“I don’t think I can do half the stuff he does. Those Russian guys have some pretty nice tricks up their sleeves. He’s got some moves, and he’s got a lot of patience. It’s just fun to watch guys like that.”
That ties into what’s interesting about Grabovski and that’s just how deceptive his value is. He’s not big, he doesn’t win many faceoffs and, being from the Russian development system, he’s not a member of a group of players traditionally known for being more than one-way scorers.
(Aside from Pavel Datsyuk...)
But Grabovski’s puck control skills and ability to get through the neutral zone have put him first on the Leafs in terms of possession statistics (like Corsi) two years in a row now, and he’s accomplishing that while getting the tough checking assignments like his recent back-to-back nights against John Tavares and Evgeni Malkin.
He fares well on the production side, too. Grabovski is tied for eighth in goals by a centre (47 in 128 games) in the last two seasons, putting him ahead of Eric Staal, Brad Richards, Anze Kopitar and other very well paid pivots.
The issue is going to be defining what some of those intangible qualities are worth and putting a dollar figure on Grabovski’s value, even as it appears to rise with every strong game he has.
The No. 1 comparable I’ve seen referenced these days is Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens, who is making $5-million a season on a six-year deal that started last season.
(A few other names are those of David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron, both with the Bruins and both making relatively similar money to Plekanec.)
That puts Grabovski in the $4.5-million to $5.5-million range and likely means Burke will have to move out another body to free up that kind of raise.
Grabovski’s agent, Gary Greenstin, has been in Toronto of late, but he has kept negotiations relatively quiet. What’s clear is that Grabovski would like to stay, as his partner is from the GTA and they have two infants at home.
So my sense is they’re going to get a deal done before he becomes a free agent in July, but then again, there’s always the chance he asks for more than management considers reasonable.
The pull of those UFA dollars can be tough for some players to avoid, especially given Grabovski could be the top centre available.
So how high do you go on a contract for a player like that? And if they lose Grabovski, how then do the Leafs replace those minutes at centre?