Centres of attention

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:18 AM ET

Mikhail Grabovski admits he is nervous.

Nervous about not scoring. Worried about his his family and his friends. Feeling all kinds of pressure in a hockey town capable of eating its young and its old.

He is trying to speak about this in his limited English, patiently addressing questions, trying to explain what it’s like to have no goals and not enough assists 11 games into this National Hockey League season. He is standing in the Maple Leafs dressing room, the last player left on a night when everyone else bailed earlier than him, in the place he likes least — as centre of attention for a team desperately in need of some offence from its centres.

It is November and Grabovski can do the math. He is on pace to score no goals this NHL year. He well understands he is symptomatic of everything that now seems wrong with this wayward Maple Leafs team, even if he can’t necessarily express it clearly. He expects more. They expect more. We expect more.

“It’s hard when you don’t score goals,” said Grabovski, no kid anymore at 26. “I need more concentration.”

He had more chances than any other Leaf Tuesday night in the loss the Ottawa Senators, but in the end he was still donut for the season. “I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t say anything right now ... I have to play harder.

“It’s good, because I have my chances.” It’s not good because he isn’t finishing on them.

There will be much noise Wednesday morning about the gash on Dion Phaneuf’s knee, the fans booing of him Saturday night, Brian Burke’s impassioned and misguided defence of his captain, and yet another Leaf defeat. There will be much noise, as there always is around here, but without much scoring the Leafs have no chance of being a playoff team and with the kind of production Grabovski and Tyler Bozak have provided at centre, well, somewhere Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has to be smiling.

Bozak, for one, wasn’t smiling much Tuesday night. He went out for Halloween two nights too late, all dressed up as the Invisible Man. He was hardly a factor on a night the Leafs needed him to be one. Fact is, they need him to be a factor most nights and he has not stepped up to the challenge. He is getting a grand opportunity as a first line centre, the hockey opportunity of a lifetime, really, but to date he is failing miserably,

Failing enough to get the attention of GM Burke, who is hardly in the habit of calling out his players. But make no mistake, Burke called out Tyler Bozak last night.

Bozak, when informed of the attention, seemed rattled by it. “I didn’t know that,” he whispered. “I hear what he’s saying and have to come out harder tomorrow (Wednesday) night.”

You can learn a lot about players by how they respond to insults from their bosses. By facial expression alone, Bozak didn’t see the public criticism coming, which means he may be somewhat blind to his own ineffectiveness.

A year ago, he looked like the real deal. A centre with vision. A centre with jump. A centre who challenged the teams he played against and created offence around him. He scored at 60-point pace as a rookie, which was more than any other rookie scored. And because he’s not a kid, he’s four years older than the rookies of a year ago, but not competing or producing the way they are.

“It’s been tough,” he admitted post game after the 3-2 loss to Ottawa, where the Leafs offence awoke for three wondrous minutes. “He’s got to be better,” Burke said of Bozak, but could have said of Grabovski. “We’ve got guys who need to score goals who aren’t scoring goals.”

And guys who need to set up goals who aren’t setting up goals.

“it’s going to happen soon,” said Mikhail Grabovski, the scoreless wonder. “I don’t know what (Bozak’s) feeling. I think he’s feeling the same as me.”


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