TORONTO – He ambles off the ice with five, maybe six sticks in hand, most appearing unworn. Among the last to exit a rare Wednesday afternoon practice at the Air Canada Centre, even Mikhail Grabovski is trying to solve the current riddle that is Mikhail Grabovski.
"I don't know what makes sense right now," he told TSN.ca.
Now the highest-paid Leaf forward – his five-year, $27.5 million deal kicked in this season – Grabovski is teetering through one of the more perplexing periods of his Toronto career. Nailed to the bench for much of Tuesday's loss in Winnipeg, the 29-year-old has just three goals and six points over the past 20 games and only six goals and 11 points this season.
"If you look at my level [of] how I play before and right now, you can see I can play much better," he said.
What exactly is wrong with the player who scored 20 goals in three of his first four seasons with the Leafs, becoming arguably their most reliable two-way force, is a greater mystery. It's painfully evident, however, that something is missing. Maybe most striking is the general absence of fire and tenacity, the requisite spark and feistiness that typically defined his game, tamed for reasons that remain unclear.
Certainly one factor in the equation is his current role, but just how great a factor is perhaps overstated.
From day one of a shortened 48-game regular season, head coach Randy Carlyle charged Grabovski and his running mate Nik Kulemin with shutdown duties, a task he is still clearly coming to grips with.
Often overmatched opposite the likes of Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Steven Stamkos, Grabovski has been on the ice for 25 goals against in 27 games this season, a pace that far outweighs stingier past performance (59 goals against in 74 games a year ago). Because he starts most shifts in the defensive zone and can often remain there for long stretches, his chances for offensive opportunity have diminished, not helped either by Kulemin's disappearance as a goal-scoring threat. But even that doesn't fully explain why he's become a virtual non-factor offensively, rarely stringing together the flurries of dynamic offence that made him successful in the past. The two should not be mutually exclusive, especially for a player of Grabovski's creative gifts.
"More chances come if we're going to play against different lines, but that's not my role right now," he said, sounding slightly defiant. "It doesn't mean it's my best, what I can do, but that's what the team needs right now."
Before the most recent 5-2 loss in Winnipeg – the first time the Leafs have gone three straight without a win this season – Carlyle hinted at the need for more offence from his two Russian checkers, noting a "bit of leeway" in respect to their role as two-thirds of a shutdown unit, before adding that "we'd like to see them provide more offence also."
"Yeah, I agree," said Grabovski, "but I don't know how to do that."
Like Carlyle, he too is trying to crack the riddle of what exactly has happened this season.
While he looked be to flying early against the Jets, Grabovski finished the night with only one good scoring chance, an opportunity that fell through early in the second period and led to the second Winnipeg goal. Seemingly at the end-point of his frustration with the Belarusian centre, Carlyle pinned him to the bench for all but one shift in the final 11 minutes of the second period, planting him there for good in the last eight minutes of the third.
Grabovski ended the evening with one shot, a 29 per cent mark on the draw (4-14) and a season-low 12 minutes and 23 seconds.
The Leafs need his offence, especially down the stretch as the games ramp up in both pace and intensity. Otherwise, they are forced to rely strictly on two lines (the Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri units) for offence. If one is quiet – as Kadri's line was against the Jets – the Leafs suddenly become a single-line attack with the fourth line an offensive non-factor.
"I like to play against the first lines, but I can play better against the first lines than right now," Grabovski explained before detailing needed changes to his game. "Score goals against these lines, be stronger in the defensive zone, pay more attention to details, work hard – harder than right now, no circles, stop and go. I can tell you a lot of stuff that needs to be better."
He is searching for answers.
Asked what he did effectively to perform at his best in the past, including 23 goals and 51 points in 74 games a year ago, Grabovski paused. "My best? What I did [in the] last years, that's my best.
"I make plays. I make a lot of plays. And I had a chance to score goals, work hard, harder than probably right now."