Grabovski eats, breathes and dreams hockey

Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski skates in a game against the Blues at the Air Canada Centre...

Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski skates in a game against the Blues at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Jan. 6, 2011. (Abelimages/Getty Images/AFP)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:55 PM ET

TORONTO - The maturation of Mikhail Grabovski, hockey player savant, has been a stunning development of this Maple Leafs season gone right and wrong.

Grabovski wakes up and thinks hockey. He eats breakfast and thinks hockey. He goes home and thinks hockey. And in between, just about all he thinks about is hockey.

“To get to this level, all players are competitive,” said Keith Acton, the Leafs assistant coach. “But Mikhail is driven. He’s the kind of kid who is consumed by hockey. He’s the kind of young man when he leaves the rink he’s all about hockey and when he’s here he watches video of his last game or video or of good players like (Sidney) Crosby or (Henrik) Zetterberg to see what he can learn from them.

“I’ve seen a lot of players. I haven’t seen very many as totally consumed as he is,” Acton said.

The Grabovski that Acton and Ron Wilson and Brian Burke talk about is not the Grabovski the public seems to know. The contradiction between inside and outside is stark. In Montreal, Grabovski didn’t necessarily get along with those he played with on the Canadiens. That feud continued on to his time in Toronto. Off the ice, he’s had a moment of two he’d rather not talk about. Just not anymore.

“I can’t think of a more professional guy than Grabo,” said Wilson, who has coached the centreman for three seasons, one good, one poor, this one close to great. “He spends every waking moment studying his own shifts and his line’s shifts and trying to make himself better. He’s totally focussed on being the best player he can be.”

And for that, he’s on his way. This is the last week of the regular season and as the Leafs prepare to play the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night, Grabovski has scored just one goal fewer than Alexander Ovechkin and the same number as Ilya Kovalchuk. The 29 goals ranks him eighth among centres in the NHL. This from a team that was supposed to be lacking a front line centre.

Statistically, some of Grabovski’s numbers are startling: He ranks 12th among centres in plus-minus, playing on a team that has given up more goals than it has scored. He is 12th at his position in the NHL in scoring at even strength, 20th in scoring overall among centres. And consumed as he may be, the statistics take something of a backseat to his becoming a father, his girlfriend giving birth to baby Vera earlier this season.

“Right now, my life is hockey,” he said. “I try to think about something different, but always it’s hockey. Now, I have my baby, and now it’s hockey and my family. That’s more important than anything.

“My life is more serious now. More maturation. I don’t this just for myself, now for the baby and family. I want to make my baby’s life more happy in the future.”

From start to finish, Grabovski has been the Leafs best player. James Reimer may own the final months. Dion Phaneuf has come on. Nik Kulemin has been consistent and solid. Phil Kessel has been streaky good or streaky bad. Grabovski, the one-time enigma, has been almost a straight line. Strong offensively, almost the Leafs best player defensively, definitely the Leafs best penalty killer (statistics wise) even though he’s not used there very often.

All this from a player the Leafs would have basically given away last summer. Grabovski was thought to be overpriced and underproductive. Some around the league considered him to be a headache waiting to happen. In this case, the best deal Burke made was not dealing Grabovski.

“It’s been a bit of a maturing process, at times living through the adversity,” said Wilson. “He’s lived through the bumps and the failures.”

“I love talking to him,” Acton said. “He thinks the game continually. He’s the kind of player who brings strategy to coaches. You have to listen to him. He’s just a wonderful, wonderful young man who keeps getting better and better.”

His next goal will be his 30th, and for some that would mark a milestone. Grabovski doesn’t care much for 30, he wants 31.

“Thirty would mean nothing to me. It would mean more to my agent, my dad, maybe my coach or my linemates. For me, every goal is important. I want 31. I was born on 31 (January). I try to make it against Washington.”

So what’s next for Grabovski, other than his upcoming diaper change?

“I want to be in the playoffs,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how many goals I score, I want that. My future is all about my life in hockey. I can’t do anything else. I can’t think anything else.”

And as for his daughter, he said jokingly: “I hope she doesn’t look like me.”


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