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Grabovski brings his flashy act west with Leafs // Canadian Press
After 2 years as a Montreal afterthought, young centre emerging for Toronto
Back in the dark ages of the Toronto Maple Leafs' current rebuilding phase (this past July), Cliff Fletcher moved a second-round draft pick in 2010 and a prospect nobody had ever heard of (Greg Pateryn) to Montreal for centre Mikhail Grabovski.
Fans yawned. Columnists wrote about "Trader Cliff" already returning to his roots by dealing too many future picks for questionable talent.
Fletcher himself stuck to the script and issued this statement: "He has a great upside and we will look for him to contribute for us right away at the centre position."
So he missed by seven games — a run that saw Grabovski, the 5-foot-11, 24-year-old, come up empty for his new Toronto employers.
Since then, the centre has seven goals and 10 points over the last eight contests (six goals in the last four) and heads west to introduce himself to fans in Calgary on Tuesday, Edmonton on Thursday and Vancouver on Saturday as one of the hottest young players in the league.
Leafs' coach Ron Wilson, who's been around long enough to know these quick starts can become quick collapses, nonetheless looked a bit smug on Saturday night after Grabovski picked up two points, ran the goaltender a couple of times and thoroughly annoyed his former teammates in a 6-3 victory.
"He's been our best player for two weeks," Wilson said. "He's been a dominant player. That's why he's got seven goals now."
That's four more scores than Grabovski picked up over 27 games with the Habs, spread across two seasons.
Bounced up and down between the NHL and the minors a number of times, the young Belarussian was sat as a healthy scratch so often last spring he staged a minor protest by leaving the Canadiens to meet with his agent for a couple of days.
Based on the way his former dressing roommates were going after him on Saturday at the Air Canada Centre, they continue to be unimpressed with Grabovski's choices — and that little butt end he threw at Habs' goalie Carey Price didn't help.
None of this seems to bother the former 180th pick in the amateur draft. Asked after the game if he missed being with the Canadiens, Grabovski simply answered "no."
You can't do this alone, of course, and the line of Grabovski with Niklas Hagman (signed from Dallas) and Nikolai Kulemin has been excellent of late.
Hagman, the ancient mariner on the unit at 28, has six goals and 12 points, while Kulemin, a Russian rookie who arrived with a reputation as an up and coming playmaker, has six assists and eight points.
They've also risen to a challenge put out by Fletcher during training camp when the GM said he only had one "Top 6" forward on the club. He meant Nik Antropov.
This young Leafs' club is fast and Grabovski fits well into the hustling attack. He had 65 points in 86 regular season and playoff games with Hamilton in 2006-07 as the Bulldogs won the Calder Cup.
If he settles down a bit from here and averages just the seven scores for each 15 games, that will be a 30-plus goal season for the Leafs — far more than what they must have expected.
Wilson has been nice to the Habs about the decision to give up on Grabovski.
"The Canadiens knew what they had in Mikhail," Wilson told the assembled media on Saturday. "[But] they've got an unbelievable group of forwards with so much skill and he probably wasn't going to get a fair opportunity.
"Fortunately for us, we were able to pick him up. He's into a real good rhythm."
Grabovski himself speaks limited English, but he can get the point across.
"We go play, we win," he told the Toronto Star. "Nothing special."
Perhaps in the long run that could still be true, but as fans out west should discover, right now it is special.