The growth of Grabovski

Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski gets set for a face-off against the Sabres at the Air Canada...

Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski gets set for a face-off against the Sabres at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., Sep. 27, 2010. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:36 PM ET

TORONTO - Not long ago, Mikhail Grabovski being face first in the ice in Ottawa would not have had such a happy ending for him or the Maple Leafs.

Grabovski either wouldn’t have returned from being laid out by Chris Neil or come back with a recklessness that might have put himself or the team in trouble — forget about capping his short-handed goal by setting up Clarke MacArthur’s insurance tally.

But Grabovski has gone from boy to man since his first year in Toronto, on the ice as the team’s durable two-way centre/pre-season alternate captain and more worldly at large as a new father and acclimatized Torontonian.

“Growing in my head,” is how he humorously put it on Wednesday, handling a full media scrum that might have intimidated him in the past. “I’m 27 now. This is my third or fourth year. I have a great line (with Nikolai Kulemin and MacArthur) and the coach gives me ice time. It’s so much better that the coach believes in you. He gives me a chance to play and I work hard.”

Under Ron Wilson, the Belarusian noted his ice time has gone from 59 games and 16:47 minutes a night a year ago to 81 games and 19 minutes per game last season. He leads the in scoring Leafs this pre-season with six points and in the absence of the injury-bugged line of Joffrey Lupul, Tim Connolly and Phil Kessel, is centring the undisputed top unit on the team.

With MacArthur and fellow-Russian speaker Nikolai Kulemin (this Beatle fan calls them Mac n’ The USSR) Grabovski has been able to show all facets of his game.

“I think he has been comfortable after he got through the first year,” said Wilson, referring to then-GM Cliff Fletcher acquiring Grabovski from Montreal.

“His English is a lot better than he lets on. His girlfriend (Kate) is Canadian, he has one child (Lily) and one on the way, so he’s basically going to be Canadian. You can see that in his play. You knock him down, he gets back up. He gets a bad cut, he goes in and comes back out as quickly as possible.

“That’s why I say he’s the toughest guy on our team. You can’t hurt him, he’s like a Weeble.” (Which wobble but don’t fall down, if recollections of our childhood toy collection are correct.)

Grabovski came to the Leafs as a hot-head, running afoul of fans and teammates in Montreal when he pouted after being made a healthy scratch. The petulance was not forgotten by some Habs who targeted him as a Leaf, in particular countryman Sergei Kostitsyn.

He shoved an official during one exchange with Kostitsyn, received a three-game suspension and angered his new team for getting into a public altercation with fans during the Vancouver Olympics. But since the start of 2010-11, Grabovski has been a model citizen.

“When I started (the NHL) was different for me,” Grabovski said. “But now I have some experience. (Now) you feel different on the ice, you feel the puck, you feel the ice, you feel the partners.

“I think we have a great team this year, lots of guys from last year on the same lines. If we play the way we did at the end of last year, we can make success this year. Personally I feel great, ready for a new season.”

If Grabovski has a wild streak now, it’s manifested itself in his going to the net, which the goal-starved Leafs welcome.

“He does all that little detail work,” Wilson added. “The only thing he has to get better on is faceoffs and he works on that and watches a lot of video.

“I’ve got used to him, and now you have two new assistants (Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon). They haven’t seen him play much and now it’s, ‘Oh, this guy’s a pretty good player’. And the kind of player that coaches appreciate.”

That Grabovski still had his head on straight after Neil nailed him underlined what Wilson meant.

“That’s why I have an ‘A’ on him some nights, as a reward for how professional he has been. You don’t have to say anything, it’s in the way he approaches practices and a game. He works as hard if not harder than anyone else. He’s had issues in particular with one team and he’s got over that now. He realizes how important he is to our team, that it’s important he be on the ice.”


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