TORONTO – During his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mikhail Grabovski often brought his best to the ice when playing the Montreal Canadiens.
Montreal traded Grabovski early in his NHL career, but it was in his five seasons with Toronto that he “grew up” as a hockey player. After Grabovski was bought out by the Maple Leafs last summer, his former teammates expect him to be fired up when the Washington Capitals visit Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.
“I’m sure he’ll be wanting to put on a good show here in Toronto,” centre Tyler Bozak said. “He’ll want to play well, for sure. Hopefully we can hold him to a minimum out there. He’s going to be going hard.”
Good friend Nikolai Kulemin expects Grabovski is “going to play harder against us than any other teams.”
This after things went poorly in his final season in Toronto, culminating with his profanity-filled ripping of coach Randy Carlyle in an interview with TSN Radio 1050 after being bought out. Kulemin said Grabovski was a little nervous before getting married when he went off on Carlyle.
Defenceman Carl Gunnarsson said Friday he thought Grabovski did all right last year in spite of some adversity.
“I guess he wasn’t happy with how he played or how they used him in games,” Gunnarsson said. “But even though going out to the media like that might not be the right answer to it. That’s up to him. I don’t think anyone would happy to be bought out like that.”
Grabovski said this week he’s comfortable with his role on the Capitals, centring the third line between Jason Chimera and Joel Ward. Coach Adam Oates’ more offensive-minded system fits him better than Carlyle’s, so he’s happy to have a fresh start.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not at least “a little bit excited” to return to Toronto and face the Leafs.
“It’s motivation to play in the place where you play like a hometown,” Grabovski told reporters at the Capitals’ practice facility Thursday. “Five years in the city. I feel like I have a lot of friends, a lot of family, I know a lot of people, so for me it’s like hometown. I can say I grew up in this place.”
Grabovski played 340 games with the Leafs, putting up 91 goals and 118 assists. He thrived under coach Ron Wilson and along the way earned a US$27.5-million, five-year contract.
Carlyle used Grabovski in more defensive spots than he was used to, and the relationship soured. Even with the hard feelings, Grabovski said this week that Carlyle and his staff helped him become a better defensive and more disciplined player.
Prompted Saturday with a question about Grabovski airing his grievances on the way out, Carlyle laughed it off with a profanity.
“I’m not here to comment on players’ comments,” Carlyle said. “Players make comments, they have their own agenda. My agenda here is as we’ve stated when it happened, we thank him for his time here, wish him all the best and we’re moving on. Simple as that.”
On coaching against Grabovski, Carlyle said: “He’s another player. I don’t focus on Grabovski, I focus on the Washington Capitals.”
Grabovski has been a big part of the Capitals’ success this season. With seven goals and 12 assists, Grabovski is third on the team in points, behind only top-line stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
After feeling “terrible” about the buyout, the 29-year-old said he feels “excellent” in Washington. That’s a welcome development for his former teammates.
“He’s found a place where he fits in well,” Bozak said. “We know he’s a great player and a good friend of all of ours. He’s having a great year, and we’re happy for him.”
NOTES—Leafs defenceman Mark Fraser is expected to return to the lineup after missing the past two games with a knee injury. Morgan Rielly is expected to be a healthy scratch. … Centre Tyler Bozak will miss his 11th straight game with a hamstring injury. Carlyle said he was very surprised Bozak was not available against the Capitals because he was “fully counting” on him being ready. … After losing 3-2 to the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night, the Capitals are tweaking their lineup. Martin Erat is expected to be a healthy scratch, and he’ll be replaced by Eric Fehr who hasn’t played since Nov. 2.