Mikhail Grabovski was looking for a fresh start this summer after he was bought out by the Toronto Maple Leafs and unexpectedly made a free agent. He got one from the Capitals when they signed him to a one-year deal in late August. Through the first 22 games of the season the veteran center has taken advantage of the opportunity.
Heading into back-to-back games this weekend against both of his former teams, Montreal and Toronto, Grabovski is an integral part of the Capitals’ most effective line at even strength. He’s recorded seven goals and 18 points, already surpassing his point total from last year (16), and he is relishing the confidence the coaching staff has in him, something that was never the case under Randy Carlyle in Toronto.
“I think it’s been a good move for me here,” Grabovski said. “Of course I felt terrible when they buy out my contract, but right now I feel excellent because [the Capitals] give me liberties, so I can play my hockey and my style of hockey. You enjoy to play when people trust you and they give you a chance to play.”
After Grabovski spent the first seven games of the season centering the second line, the spot vacated by Mike Ribeiro’s departure as a free agent, Coach Adam Oates moved him to the third. Grabovski needed time to learn Washington’s system, and Oates hoped that veteran wingers Joel Ward and Jason Chimera would be able to help ease that process.
The move worked out better than even Oates intended. Grabovski, Chimera and Ward have combined for 16 goals and 19 assists since they were united. With each game they’ve played together, the more they’ve functioned as a cohesive three-man unit aware of where the others are on the ice and creating successful offensive zone shifts.
“They’ve given us a great identity there, they really have,” Oates said. “Grabo’s, I think, done a very good job, he’s come in and had to learn another system. That’s not always easy. He’s had a good start and is playing good hockey for us.”
Grabovski isn’t seeing significantly more ice time than he did in Toronto last year – 15:40 per game with the Capitals versus 15:34 with the Maple Leafs – but Oates is more encouraging of his offensive creativity. He’s not freewheeling aimlessly, but pushing the play up ice and darting around the offensive zone to help set up more chances for the line as a whole.
“I like this hockey, that’s the key to my game,” Grabovski said of his line’s ability to drive the play north. “They’re pretty good in the offensive zone, circle the puck so we have lots of chances not just on the rush in the offensive zone.”
While they might have helped Grabovski assimilate to the system, Ward and Chimera know they’re benefiting from having the skilled, natural playmaker on their line. Grabovski’s created goals for both of them and makes their line more of a legitimate offensive threat, rather than one that grinds down low but can’t finish on the opportunities it creates.
They’re glad to see their new teammate doing well after all that he went through in the past year.
“He got bought out, kicked to the curb, and you see him respond so well,” Chimera said. “It’s a testament to the way he is. He’s gone about the business side of this really well and he’s been a good teammate here. … He’s very quiet in the room but he talks a lot on the bench, between shifts he talks a lot. It’s funny because I wasn’t expecting much conversation, but every shift we come back he’s got something to say. He lets us know what he wants from us and we from him, as a teammate he’s been great.”
Friday night marks the 30th time Grabovski has played the Canadiens since he was traded to Toronto in 2008. But Saturday will be the first time he faces the Maple Leafs since the bad breakup last year. When asked if he had extra motivation heading into games this weekend, Grabovski smiled.
“Little bit excited,” Grabovski said. “I don’t know about Montreal, but Toronto, for sure. There’s motivation when you play in the place where you played like a hometown.”