VANCOUVER – He pulls out the retractable blade and carefully filets the navy-coloured tape off the end of his stick.
Mikhail Grabovski is finally satisfied with at least one stick heading into a tilt with the Canucks on Saturday.
Trade rumours and contract negotiations – he's an impending unrestricted free agent – seem to exist on a world largely distant from the one the 28-year-old currently inhabits. Rather, it's the current batch of Eastons he's got in stock that seem to be of greatest concern.
"I don't care at all," he told TSN.ca of trade and contract speculation. "Not at all. I just care about my sticks."
"Serious," he insisted. "I'm serious. I don't care. I don't tell myself anything. If I hear that from my coach or general manager that start bothering me, but not about the newspaper or radio."
Pointless in the last five games and without a goal in the last eight, Grabovski has been manically obsessing over his tool of expression in the past couple weeks and not the ever-increasing innuendo which surrounds his future in Toronto.
"You're exactly right," Ron Wilson agreed. "All he's concerned about are his sticks."
"Somehow his pattern's different. They threw out his pattern or something… It'll be a fraction, an eighth of an inch. Sometimes it's your own mind, but you've got to tell yourself it's your stick, so you look for the magic stick.
"It's driving him nuts."
Grabovski led the Leafs with eight goals and 16 points in January, but has cooled off in February with no goals and just four assists to date. For Wilson's money, the recent cold spell has had little to do with the fast approaching trade deadline.
"His name's been bantered around all season long," Wilson said. "He's like everybody else in our league, he goes on two and three week scoring binges and then a week or two dry and it comes back again. I've talked to Grabo about [the speculation] and I don't think that bothers him at all to be honest with you."
Well on his way to a second consecutive season neighbouring 30 goals and 60 points – 18 goals and 39 points currently – Grabovski is due a significant raise from the $3.1 million he's making this season, the last of a three-year deal signed in the summer of 2009. Happy in Toronto with partner Kate and their two children Jaeger and Leeliah, Grabovski is content to leave contract talk firmly in the hands of his agent, Gary Greenstin, with the two exchanging the odd text or two a week.
"He is more worried about that than me," Grabovski said. "He tell me 'concentrate on hockey'... He know exactly what's going with my price or some of that stuff, money. I don't want to worry about it right now. For me more important just team make the playoffs, play hockey."
1. Long a fan of Grabovski and his penchant for improvement, Wilson didn't hide his preference for how the situation with his top centreman will play out, certainly aware of the potential for distraction. "It probably is [tough]," Wilson said, "and it's tough for a coach to go through too because he's consistently – over the last two years – been one of our better forwards; he plays both ends. But for some reason his name's always thrown out there and now it seems to me more of a contract issue – will he be resigned? – and I'm pretty positive he will be, but that's not for me to decide."
2. Added Wilson of the stick dilemma, "When you're skating around I don't think having the wrong stick should ever bother you defensively and that's what I've said to him, 'Okay, if the puck doesn't go in or it goes over the net on every shot then it's your stick, but it's not your stick when you're checking in your own end. It's not your stick in some of the situations you find yourself in. It's got nothing to do with your stick'. I've heard all the excuses or reasons why you're not successful. I dare somebody to come up with an original reason as to why you're not successful for a short bit of time. He scores [Saturday] night, 'you were using the same stick that you didn't like yesterday and today it's your magic stick' so what are you going to do."
3. Dramatic in its turnaround from the month of December – 64% versus 97% in the New Year – the Leaf penalty kill has found another gear in terms of confidence (33-34 in 2012), never more evident than in the final two minutes of a tie game in Edmonton on Wednesday night. "When we're going out with two minutes left to go and we need a kill to make sure we come away with at least a point in a game we're going to get it done as a group," Dave Steckel told TSN.ca. "There was one point where no matter what we did, whether it was good, whether it was bad, it just seemed like every little bounce was going in the back of the net. And so it's just human nature to go out there and be like 'What else can we do?' That's definitely changed around. Now we're like 'alright we're going to get this done and get right back to five-on-five. Let's create some momentum with our penalty kill'."
4. Jake Gardiner could be the "most consistent defenceman the last 15 or 20 games" according to Wilson, all while making the game easier for whichever defenceman he's partnered with. "He gets back to pucks and he makes good decisions with the puck," Wilson said. "He's fearless physically – and he's not a very big guy – but he uses his body really well, he protects the puck and he just bumps it along. He's been well-coached along the way. And he's very reliable back there. He's going to make a mistake every once in a while, like everybody in our league, but he's minimized the mistakes and he hasn't made the kinds of mistakes you would expect someone so young and if you want to say inexperienced, he hasn't made many of those rookie mistakes." Wilson along with the coaching staff and teammates have pressed Gardiner to shoot the puck more and jump into the play with greater frequency. "Wils has told me again and again to keep shooting the puck," Gardiner told TSN.ca, days after his third goal of the season and second in February. "And as I found out recently it's been going in for me." "We've given him a green light to go now in any situation because it's been rare when he gives the puck away," added Wilson.
5. With a minus-6 rating in his last five games, John-Michael Liles has had some trouble finding his groove after missing 16 games with a neck injury. Liles has yet to record a point in eight games back. "It's seeing the game," Wilson said. "The order of the game the way he needs to [sees it], it just hasn't been there and that's what you get when you've had that kind of an injury. Your timing's off. Your hockey sense is a little rattled. And John-Michael, the puzzle pieces are all there, but he's not seeing the ones that fit right. It's coming a little bit more and more, but I expect him in the next week or so to sort the game out."
Wilson on trade deadline scenarios involving draft picks. "I'm more of personally, body for body, warm body for warm body than draft picks, but every coach in the league feels the same way," he said. "You're not worried about a second or third round draft pick because those guys are four or five years away. Coaches think in the very near present and future and managers think two and three years down the line. That's the way the business always has been and that's the way it should be, that coaches are worrying about the game tomorrow night and the managers at times are worried about the games three years from now, but that's how you have to build a team."…Nursing a sprained right ankle, Carl Gunnarsson skated separately from teammates on Friday. He's in line for a return next week, more than likely Thursday when Wilson's former team comes to town. "He better be ready for San Jose," Wilson said with a grin...Luke Schenn checks back into the lineup on Saturday after sitting as a healthy scratch in Edmonton. Mike Komisarek is likely to come out in his place...James Reimer makes his second consecutive start in goal.