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Grabovski's at home with new Leaf linemates // Toronto Star
Mikhail Grabovski doesn't speak much English but the word "opportunity" is prominent in his vocabulary.
It is why he wanted out of Montreal's organization and why he is so thrilled to have joined the Maple Leafs. And it is what he has been given, at least for now, as he starts camp as Toronto's No.1 centre, between Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky.
"New team, new coach, lots of young players. I'm very, very happy," said Grabovski.
Training camp, especially this early, is about hope. And with Grabovski and the Leafs it flows both ways.
Grabovski hopes that by finding himself on a rebuilding team with a new coach, he'll get the chance prove himself as a front-line NHLer, an opportunity he felt wasn't going to come his way with the much-deeper Canadiens. The 24-year-old even made noises about playing in Russia if the Habs didn't move him.
The Leafs hope that by sandwiching the diminutive centre between two hulking wingers who also happen to be, arguably, Toronto's two best forwards – and by happy coincidence also speak the German-born Grabovski's native Russian – they might just replace some of their lost offence. The Leafs might even create a Mats-lite, both literally and figuratively.
"There's no guarantees," said coach Ron Wilson after putting his new squad through its first on-ice session.
"It's just trying to get a guy comfortable and acclimated as quickly as possible because we have ... I'm not going to say high expectations, but we have high hopes for him."
Wilson is a meticulous planner and in his world, the process of preparing for a season isn't a haphazard series of random acts. While his lines are fluid, there was definite method to starting Grabovski – who scored just three goals in 24 games for Montreal last season – between the two men that once framed Sundin.
"I put him there to make him feel comfortable," said the coach. "So he comes to training camp and thinks, `Boy, I have a real shot here. They respect my ability.'"
There is also upside for Antropov and Ponikarovsky, who Wilson took aside to explain the importance of nurturing the newcomer.
"Show this guys the ropes," was Wilson's message to the two veterans. "There might be chemistry there, if we can manufacture some, great."
"I think that could be a tremendous line but I could be wrong. I might tell you tomorrow I hate them all or there's no chemistry and I don't like what they're doing. It's like colouring with crayons. Right now I'm inside the lines, trying to make a picture."
So far the threesome like the image that's unfolding.
Talking to each other in Russian on the ice and falling back into some of the patterns of European hockey, the three looked very comfortable together. Ponikarovsky described the way Wilson wants them to play as being similar to the Russian hockey he and his linemates grew up with. He said it's a contrast to the game he played under previous coach Paul Maurice, who preferred his wingers to stay in their lanes.
"I like it. It's a little bit of a different system because there's a little more cutting across the ice, changing the lanes and stuff that we weren't able to do before," said Ponikarovsky.
"There's more passing. Ron wants us to pass more because it's going to make a fast team even faster so that's what we have to work on. It's kind of close to the Russian style of hockey."
And to be able to speak Russian on the ice, he said, is a bonus that will make Grabovski more comfortable and confuse the opposition.
"We'll all know where we're supposed to be," he said.
"But the opposite team won't know what we're talking about."