Jason Chimera and Joel Ward were the first players to experience first-hand how Mikhail Grabovski could not only fit in with the Washington Capitals, but how the veteran center could help bring the most out of those who play with him.
When the newest Capital was moved to the third line in October, Chimera and Ward helped him grow familiar with the team’s system. But over the course of their 16 games together, it was Grabovski who aided them in bringing a more offensive and all-around game to the unit.
“He creates more chances for who’s with him,” Ward said. “He’s very dynamic, he’s a good skater, he’s got a good stick, he steals a lot of pucks. He’s got a good knack for the net and shot, he’s hungry to score goals and he wants to get after it. You can tell.”
When the Capitals signed Grabovski to a one-year, $3 million deal in late August after the Toronto Maple Leafs bought out his contract, the Belarus native simply wanted to start over with a new team. Through the first 31 games of the season, Grabovski has taken full advantage of the opportunity.
“I’m pretty comfortable here, my family [is] comfortable here,” Grabovski, 29, said. “For me it’s a great place to play. People trust me with the system and to play.”
Heading into Friday’s contest at the Florida Panthers, Grabovski is skating on the second line, ranked third on the team in points (26), tied for second in goals (9) and has become a force for solid even-strength play in the Capitals’ lineup. He leads the team with a plus-6 rating, but more impressive is that Washington has scored 55 percent of its 60 even-strength goals with Grabovski on the ice.
But like every player who enters Coach Adam Oates’s orbit, Grabovski has been asked to make some adjustments.
Oates’s focus has been showing Grabovski when he needs to take on a greater role in the defensive zone and help win battles to generate a transition, rather than simply looking to jump up ice at every turn, as Oates said, “like a dog chasing a ball.”
“As a centerman in our system, you can’t skate down low. You’ve got to help our D to get the puck out; once it’s out, you can go,” Oates said. “That’s why it takes all five guys and that’s why we have certain rules. I’m slowing him down in our end. I need his brain and hands to get us out of the zone.”
At the beginning of the year, Grabovski didn’t always fulfill his defensive requirements, prompting Oates to move him to the third line with Chimera and Ward — veteran wingers who play a straightforward game. Over time, though, Grabovski found his reads in Washington’s end.
Grabovski was helping gain possession in the corner or along the walls, and just as quickly push the line up ice and help drive a cycle attack. While he was on the third line, the trio combined for 13 even-strength goals, and Grabovski was able to see what Oates was aiming for.
“He just try help. He just look forward and he thinks about when I can play better offensively, that I can do that if I play defensively better,” said Grabovski, who has appreciated Oates’s confidence in using him in both offensive and defensive situations.
Last year, as he fell out of favor in Toronto and recorded only 16 points, Grabovski received only 22.6 percent of his starts at even strength in the offensive zone. With the Capitals, he’s seeing 33 percent of his starts in the offensive end.
When he moved to the second line between Troy Brouwer and Eric Fehr on Nov. 23, Grabovski showed immediate signs of chemistry with those wingers as well. They’ve combined for five even-strength goals, including Grabovski’s penalty shot tally, in eight games. Now two new teammates are uttering the best compliment they can bestow on Grabovski — he’s easy to play with.
“He reads the play well, he anticipates really well,” Brouwer said. “He’s that skilled player who’s willing to chip the puck go in the corners and battle to get it back. Along with his skill-set, that makes him a good player. You can see when he gets an opportunity, like on our team this year, he’s producing at a good rate.”
Notes: Goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who has missed six consecutive games with a right ankle injury, has been loaned to the AHL’s Hershey Bears on a conditioning stint. He’s expected to start at least one game with the Bears this weekend. . . . Defenseman John Erskine traveled with the team to Florida and is nearing a return after being on long-term injured reserve with a knee injury since Oct. 26.