Grabovski's play paying off

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

Mikhail Grabovski's nickname inside the Maple Leafs' dressing room is Grabby, which is appropriate given the fact that there have been times this season when coach Ron Wilson probably wanted to grab the rookie centre and shake some sense into him.

To say it has been a roller-coaster season for the Belarusian centre would be an understatement.

In his first season with the Leafs, and technically his rookie season in the NHL though he played 24 games with the Montreal Canadiens last season, Grabovski has experienced a multitude of ups and downs.

The 25-year-old started the season by scoring 12 goals in his first 34 games, while picking up nine assists, prompting suggestions that then-GM Cliff Fletcher had performed a major coup in plucking Grabovski from the Canadiens last July for Greg Pateryn and a second-round draft pick.

But then the slick centre managed just one goal in his next 29 games, including a slump of 17 in a row when he failed to score.

Wilson benched Grabovski on Feb. 4 against the Buffalo Sabres and called out his second-line centre in public to use his wingers more and stop attempting ill-advised solo rushes.

Lately, though, the East German-born forward seems to have found his game again, picking up three goals and an assist in his past three games, including two goals against the Calgary Flames in Toronto's 8-6 win on Saturday. And he seems to be clicking with his new linemates, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nikolai Kulemin.

Grabovski's English is -- how you say -- inelegant. But he made his point on Saturday that his inconsistency this season stemmed from two major factors -- the length of the season and the fact that he never really has been happy with his hockey sticks.

"First conditioning, then sticks," he said, with his trademark smile. "Every time I have problem with sticks. I change lie every time and I try to make good curve. But sticks is good now."

So is Wilson's mood, at least towards Grabovski, although Wilson said he understands that rookie players in the NHL often hit the wall in their first season.

"He's a young player, and that's what happens," Wilson said. "You have to learn how to be consistent. It's about preparation (and) not taking a bad game or an off night to heart.

"It's mental," the coach added. "It takes a lot to play in this league and average 15-16 minutes a night and compete. He's not a big guy (5-foot-11, 183 pounds soaking wet), so he's got to get stronger. He knows that now. But we have to get stronger as a team and more fit this summer."

Grabovski, an excellent skater who has to take better advantage of his playmaking skills, is a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Leafs GM Brian Burke said that he has had some discussions with the centre's agent about a new contract, although there is nothing to report yet.

Burke said he has been impressed with Grabovski's improvement to his overall game. "Earlier in the season, he provided only offence," Burke said. "Now, he's increasingly competent and reliable in all areas of the ice."

Grabovski believes he has what it takes to be a big scorer in the NHL level and hopes to return to the Leafs next season, stronger and in better shape for the rigours of an NHL campaign.

"I know what to do in the summer," he said. "More conditioning."


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