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Grabovski has huge role to play with Leafs // National Post
Michael Traikos, Canwest News Service
TORONTO - The player who has been chosen to fill Mats Sundin's shoes is six inches shorter than his predecessor.
He has 1,278 fewer games of NHL experience. And he has scored 1,312 fewer points.
But Mikhail Grabovski, who is also 13 years younger than Sundin, can do two things that the baldheaded Swede cannot: use a comb and speak Russian.
The former may help the blond-haired Belarusian win over female fans, while the Toronto Maple Leafs hope the latter is just as useful with Grabovski sandwiched between Ukrainian-born Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov of Kazakhstan.
Toronto, which hosts the Buffalo Sabres in a pre-season game at Air Canada Centre tonight, will soon find out if on-ice chemistry can be found in fluency.
"It's nice because you get that feeling like you're back in the Russian Elite League," Ponikarovsky said after a training camp practice at Ricoh Coliseum on Sunday.
Language aside, the diminutive Grabovski was a surprising choice to temporarily replace the six-foot-five Sundin.
The 24-year-old, whom the Leafs acquired from the Montreal Canadiens in the summer for defensive prospect Greg Pateryn and a second-round draft choice in 2010, has scored just three goals in 27 games. And after spending most of his young career in the minors, Grabovski is still not sure if he belongs in the NHL, much less the top line.
"Me No. 1?" he asked of his new role. "I don't know. There's a lot of players that can play good. It's the first time for me. Maybe I have a good chance to play in the NHL. If I work hard, maybe I can do it."
Grabovski, according to head coach Ron Wilson, will get some big help.
For years, Antropov and Ponikarovsky enjoyed the benefits of playing beside one of the game's top forwards. Last season, Sundin assisted on half of Antropov's 26 goals and half of Ponikarovsky's 18.
Now, it is their turn to do the heavy lifting.
"Playing with Mats, you know, it's been easy," said Antropov, who had a career-high 56 points last season. "And now it's going to be a big challenge for the team, not just for me. Hopefully, we end up playing good hockey."
Whether the Leafs, who went 3-4-1 without Sundin in the lineup last season, can survive without their captain is up for debate. The 37-year-old led the team with 32 goals and 78 points. The next highest scorer was Antropov, who had 22 fewer points. Only two others - Tomas Kaberle (53) and Jason Blake (52) - recorded 50 or more points.
"I realize that I played pretty well last year and got some points on the board," Antropov said. "So I realize that I have to do even better this year. And I'm working hard on it and will try to do everything possible that I can."
Without Sundin, the Leafs' offence is likely to be run through the six-foot-six Antropov and six-foot-four Ponikarovsky. According to Ponikarovsky, it is a welcome challenge.
"Mats was out there for basically all the crucial moments," he said. "When you don't see him anymore, you're kind of like, 'It's up to us right now.' We have to just suck it up. I think that's a good thing."
After practising with Grabovski for two straight days, Antropov was impressed with how the newcomer "skates and moves the puck." But he was not quite ready to anoint the five-foot-11 forward mini-Mats.
"He's a completely different player," Antropov said. "Nothing against him, he's a nice, good player. But Mats is a future Hall of Famer. There's no comparison."