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Many lessons for Grabovski this season; 'A lot of experience'; Been a year of ups and downs for Leafs rookie // National Post
TORONTO - It took a benching, a faulty stick and a 17-game scoring slump. But Mikhail Grabovski has finally learned what it takes to be successful in the National Hockey League.
The Belarussian now knows that fluency in English is not only useful when conducting interviews, but also in dealing with equipment manufacturers. The 25-year-old rookie now understands that playing in the big show requires a different level of fitness than playing in the minors. And as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the sniper now realizes that being a trusted teammate is more important than being a top scorer.
"I have a lot of experience," Grabovski said.
It has been a season of ups-and-downs for the first-year pro, from being included in early Calder Trophy talks to being suspended for shoving a linesman.
Grabovski experienced another high and another low Saturday when he celebrated his first career hat trick in an 8-6 win against the Calgary Flames, only to have the league take back one of his goals after the game.
"It's OK," said Grabovski, whose second goal was later credited to Nikolai Kulemin. "That's my best friend on the team ... I care, but I'm happy for Nikolai too, because he's young, he needs to score goals."
Kulemin now has 11 goals and 23 points. Grabovski, who leads Leafs rookies in scoring -- and is ranked sixth in the league -- has 16 goals and 35 points.
Like most freshmen, Grabovski has struggled with consistency all season.
While playing on a line with Kulemin and Niklas Hagman, he began the year without a point in his first seven games. He then had 10 goals and 18 points in the next 18 games, before experiencing 11-and 17-game goal-scoring droughts.
Part of the problem, head coach Ron Wilson said, is that Grabovski tries to do too much on his own. The youngster was benched in a Feb. 4 game against the Buffalo Sabres for not using his linemates more often. Since then, he has twice as many assists than goals.
"I like playing a team game, I like playing a passing game," he said. "But maybe I want to play a little bit faster sometimes and I don't give a pass because my partner is behind me."
The diminutive centre, who is generously listed at 5-foot-11 and 182 pounds, also blames a lack of muscle and conditioning for not being able to handle the daily grind of playing an 82-game season in the NHL.
"I know what I need to do in the summer," said Grabovski, who once again plans on representing Belarus in the world championship when the season ends.
"In [the minors] it was a little bit easier, because it's not as fast and sometimes it's not as hard of a game. But here, every game is hard. Maybe I start to practice in the summer some more conditioning."
Added Leafs head coach Ron Wilson: "It's a lot to play in this league and average 16 minutes a night and compete with people. He's not a big guy. He has to get stronger. He knows that now."
In addition to hitting the weights, Grabovski also plans on hitting the books in his attempt to fully grasp the English language. It is a necessary skill for conducting interviews, for talking with his head coach and teammates, and for explaining to stick manufacturer Easton the type of curve he wants for his blade.
"Easton doesn't understand me," said Grabovski, whose interpreter suddenly refused to translate for him after Saturday's game.
"[Alexei] Ponikarovsky helps me every time. But he says I can speak English," Grabovski said. "Maybe next year I'll speak better."
Next year, everything should be better. Not just for Grabovski, who is expected to centre the top line, but for the team as a whole.
The rookies will have a year under their belt. The starting goaltender will have returned from hip and groin surgery. And, fans are hoping, qualifying for the playoffs will be more than just a pipe dream.
"It's a very young team," Grabovski said. "I think we'll try to make a very good team in the future."