Why Mikhail Grabovski Should Be The Number One Centre In Toronto
With the Toronto Maple Leafs looking as if they will once again fail to address their biggest need this off-season, a first line centre, Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke will likely look to James van Riemsdyk to solve their problems down the middle.
With van Riemsdyk set to give centre “a try” at training camp, head coach Randy Carlyle will have to start from square one with an inexperienced 23-year old that is more adept to playing left wing than the highly demanding centre position.
While JVR has played some centre at the College level, he has little experience at the NHL level and there is a huge difference between the two. Any forward position is demanding, centre requires excellent skating, a keen ability to find players in opem ice, a slew of defensive responsibilities (which is a weak spot for JVR) and the added pressure of having to win important faceoffs (where JVR has little experience).
Toronto currently employs six natural centres on their roster, including Mikhail Grabovski, Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi, Tyler Bozak, Jay McClement and David Steckel.
Bozak, last season’s de facto number one centre, put up decent numbers between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul but as good as he was nobody ever confused Bozak as a true number one centre.
Grabovski had a cup of coffee on the first line, but former head coach Ron Wilson preferred to keep him between Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur for most of the season hoping they would regain the chemistry they had in 2010-11 when all three set career highs in points.
Lombardi, Connolly, McClement and Steckel are likely to fight it out for third and fourth line duty, which means unless the likes of prospect Nazem Kadri or Joe Colborne can impress at training camp, one of Grabovski or JVR will be the Maple Leafs first line centre.
Colborne would benefit from another season in the AHL, which means he is not much of a threat to gran top-six minutes with the Maple Leafs.
Kadri has been hard at work training with former Toronto Maple Leaf Gary Roberts this summer. There is a long list of talented players that have attended Roberts’ training camp in the past including Jeff Skinner, Brayden Schenn, James Neal and Steven Stamkos. All of those players improved by leaps and bounds the following season, all of them are already considered stars at the NHL level, or have huge upside.
While it would be easy to assume Roberts will work his magic on Kadri this summer there is still the matter of finding a place for him to play. Kadri played marginal minutes at centre with the Buds last season before settling in on the wing. In total Kadri would play in 21 games with the big club last season, notching five goals and two assists.
Easily knocked off the puck in the past, the hope is Kadri’s training will give him the strength to fend off opposing forwards and give him the ability to play with the feistiness that made him so successful at the OHL and AHL levels.
Still, at just 21-years of age, asking Kadri to step into the first line centre roll would be a cruel and unusual punishment, especially when you consider Kadri’s defensive skills are limited at best.
With Kadri and JVR clearly in need of some seasoning, which player should Carlyle turn to when the 2012-13 season starts?
Known for his creativity, speed and leadership, Mikhail Grabovski’s defense is often overlooked. Arguably Toronto’s best two-way forward last season, Grabovski’s unique combination of speed, skill and defensive prowess are exactly the tri-fecta of talent that Carlyle should be looking for from his first line centre.
Chemistry has been an issue when Grabovski, Kessel and Lupul have been on the same line but if Carlyle put the trio together right through training camp there is every reason to believe that they could gel.
One area Grabovski does not fit the mold of a first line centre is his size, which at 5’11” and 183 pounds is undersized by NHL standards. While Grabo may be small in stature he is still a handful to deal with and who can forget his scrap with Ottawa Senators pugilist Chris Neil last season?
Ideally, Carlyle should consider starting the season with Grabo on the first line while slowly weaning him off the first line as Kadri or van Riemsdyk develop their games.
Both Kadri and van Riemsdyk are in need of development so there is no reason to rush them into a role where their confidence might get shattered. Kadri was hampered by poor decisions, lapses in defensive coverage and questionable fitness last season, while JVR spent his time along the wing with the Philadelphia Flyers and had injury troubles. Simply put, to ask either player to play first line centre in the uber-tough Eastern Conference where players like Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Brad Richards, John Tavares, Eric Staal and Nicklas Backstrom are bound to be their opponents on more nights than not would be unfair.
Not that Grabovski is going to have it easy either, but at least he is a seasoned veteran with decent faceoff skills and the ability to raise his game and toughness. Add that to his offensive skills and he can make a good case for first line duty.
At this point nobody looks to be Toronto’s immediate answer down the middle, but rushing Kadri or JVR into a poor situation will not help matters for the long term.
Burke has said all along that he wanted to adopt a system of development where the entire organization would push for NHL jobs. Handing JVR or Kadri the job would send the wrong message and should they fail, then what have you got? Where do you go from there?
Mikhail Grabovski deserves his shot and as the Maple Leafs highest paid forward the Blue White need to get more out of him. Now all he has to do is go out and earn it this summer.
Until next time,