Mikhail Grabovski wasn’t worried.
It wasn’t long after the Toronto Maple Leafs bought him out that the 29-year-old centre got married and went on his honeymoon. Teams from the NHL and Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, potentially as many as 12 of them, were interested in his services.
“We were not panicking at all,” agent Gary Greenstin said.
Grabovski waited, and so did the Washington Capitals. Finally they agreed to a one-year, $3-million deal in a situation that has the potential to work out much better than his final season in Toronto under coach Randy Carlyle.
With the Capitals, Grabovski will have a top-six role, time on the power play and a coach in Adam Oates who is likely to give him free rein to put up points and create offence.
“I like the system,” Grabovski said on a conference call. “I like that they’re an offensive team and one of the teams who really wants me. General manager and coach, everybody wants me and they like how I play before. I chose Washington because they really trust me and I think I can help them.”
Oates met with Grabovski and sold him on the value of playing on an offensive team with a strong power play.
“I said, ‘Look, no one’s ever had this buyout before in our league. It’s a very unique situation, you’re a young guy, you’re a good player, you’ve got a very unique opportunity. Make sure that when you make the decision, you go to a team that fits your puzzle,'” Oates said in a phone interview Friday. “I think there’s an opportunity there, so we should be a team that you consider.”
The Maple Leafs bought out the final four seasons of Grabovski’s five-year, $27.5-million contract after a lockout-shortened season in which he put up nine goals and seven assists in 48 games while being used predominantly in a bottom-six role.
“The coach is always right,” Greenstin said. “I’ve been around hockey long enough. If something goes wrong between the coach and the player, the agent has to talk to the general manager. Actually (I have) no hard feeling for Carly. I still believe he’s a good coach and I wish best success to the Maple Leafs.”
Grabovski conceded he had a “bad year” and is now set on creating a “new life” for himself.
“I’ll try to do my best to prove myself and play better than last year,” he said.
Previously under Ron Wilson, the Belarusian was an effective scorer, recording 51 points in 2011-12 and 58 points in 2010-11.
“Grabo was a joy to coach,” Wilson said in a text message. “Works very hard, cares about winning and improving as an individual. As tough a player as I’ve had and absolutely fearless.”
Grabovski called Carlyle an “idiot” in an interview after he was bought out. Asked if he had any concerns about Grabovski’s character, Capitals general manager George McPhee told reporters in Arlington, Va., that the organization did its “homework,” adding that the expectation for players is to contact the coach directly about concerns.
“We’ve all said things said that we wish we would’ve retracted after the fact,” Oates said. “I didn’t bring it up with him. I’m so not worried about it because I did it myself.”
Given that Oates was a primary reason for Grabovski signing with Washington, that’s not expected to be an issue.
“We were impressed, very much impressed with Washington coach Adam Oates,” Greenstin said. “I remember as a player he always was an honest player during his hockey career. We talked with Adam, and most importantly he talked to Mikhail. And his enthusiasm, Adam’s enthusiasm to work with Mikhail, convinced us it was right.”
Time helped convince the Capitals it was the right fit. McPhee said the team was confident in Brooks Laich as its No. 2 centre but shored up its depth down the middle by finally giving Grabovski a home in late August.
“On July 8 (Laich) was our No. 2 centre, but things change over the course of the summer and it looked like there was an opportunity with Grabovski and really having Brooks knowing he can play that position allowed us to do this deal,” McPhee said. “We could take our time and get the right deal.”
Having Grabovski signed long-term didn’t seem to be the right deal for the Maple Leafs, so they used a compliance buyout on him to save the US$5.5-million cap hit for the next four years. They’ll pay him $14.3 million over the next eight years instead as part of the buyout.
To shore up the centre position, the Maple Leafs re-signed Tyler Bozak to a five-year, $21-million deal and traded for David Bolland from the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Capitals had their own hole down the middle after letting Mike Ribeiro leave to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes. Grabovski is four years younger than Ribeiro and will cost $2.5 million less against the cap this season.
“We think Grabovski’s a pretty significant signing for us,” McPhee said. “He’s a really well-rounded player that will bring a lot of speed to our lineup, bring some offence to the lineup. He’s pretty solid on faceoffs, he’s a good penalty-killer, (can) play the power play and five-on-five should make us a better hockey club.”
Grabovski’s hope is that joining the Capitals, whose top two lines include Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Martin Erat, revitalizes his career. Playing predominantly with Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur in 2011-12, he had 29 goals and 29 assists.
Greenstin said he expects Grabovski to be a 60- or 70-point player during an 82-game season if given that kind of role under Oates.
“Everybody knows his capabilities,” Greenstin said. “Regarding why he make less points with the Maple Leafs because (of the) short season, first of all, in a longer season he’ll get his 20 goals. And second, he had been playing third, fourth line.”
Oates didn’t discuss specifics of a role or playing time with Grabovski, but he’s expected to see significant minutes on the power play and five-on-five. At that point, Oates said, it’s up to Grabovski to prove he deserves another contract.
Grabovski, who is in the midst of a month-long training program in Southern California, insisted his focus is on the present and immediate future and not his past with the Maple Leafs.
“He is happy,” Greenstin said. “He loves Toronto, he loves the Maple Leafs—they’re a great organization. Now he has a new home, a new organization. He’ll play for Washington and I believe his goal (is) to win the Stanley Cup. And he’s 29. He’ll have a great, great hockey career as it continues.”