By: Ben Raby (www.twitter.com/benraby31)
ARLINGTON, Va. - Mikhail Grabovski says that much has changed since he was, at times, a hot-headed prospect with the Montreal Canadiens. The explanation, he says, lies in his five year stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"For me, it's a place where I grew up as a hockey player in the NHL," Grabovski says of Toronto- a place he continues to call "my hometown."
As Grabovski prepares for a personal Reunion Weekend with games against the Canadiens on Friday and the Maple Leafs on Saturday, the Washington Capitals third line center admits that he will have plenty of motivation in facing two of his former employers in back-to-back contests.
"There's always something (special) because Montreal was my first team in the NHL and I think a couple of players are still playing in Montreal who I know and who I played with so they're always a fun team to play against," said the Canadiens fifth round selection (150th overall) from the 2004 NHL Draft.
"But Montreal was a little bit different because I played only (27) games. Toronto was more like my home. You spend five years in a city, I feel like I have a lot of friends and a lot of family and I know a lot of people, so for me it was like a hometown and you can say that I grew up there. I don't say that about Montreal where they gave me just (27) chances to play so I'll be excited to come to Toronto to play."
Grabovski was barely 24 years old when the one-time Canadiens prospect turned his back on the winningest franchise in NHL history.
Frustrated with a lack of playing time, Grabovski left the team briefly during a west coast road trip in March 2008 to meet with his agent. He would eventually return to the Canadiens and play eight more games in a Montreal uniform, before being traded to Toronto the following offseason.
"I just think that maybe I didn’t have enough patience to wait because I was young," Grabovski said Thursday from the Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
"Players always want to play and prove themselves. (General Manager) Bob Gainey, I remember, he gave me a great chance to stay in Montreal," before pulling the trigger on a deal with Toronto. "I had great years with Hamilton (in the American Hockey League), so what didn’t work? I don’t know because everything has worked out [in the end]."
After spending two years shuttling between the Canadiens and their AHL affiliate the Hamilton Bulldogs, Grabovski earned fulltime NHL status with the Maple Leafs during the 2008-09 season. He was relied upon as a top-six forward under head coach Ron Wilson and recorded career highs across the board in 2010-11 with 29 goals and 58 points in 81 games.
While it didn’t take long for Grabovski to enjoy professional success with the Maple Leafs, he also settled down personally. Grabovski and his longtime girlfriend wed last summer in Toronto and together they have two children.
While Grabovski says that married life has treated him well, the honeymoon with the Maple Leafs came to a screeching halt last season.
After signing a five-year $27.5 million contract extension with Toronto in 2012, the Maple Leafs bought out the final four years of the deal last summer. The announcement was made the day before Grabovski's wedding.
"In my head, it was summertime and the next day I was getting married so I was mostly thinking about my wife not about my contract. But I kind of felt like it was going to happen because I didn’t have the trust of the coaching staff but that’s what happened and my reaction has been positive."
Relegated to the fourth line by Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle last season, Grabovski has re-discovered the joy for the game after signing a one-year $3 million deal with the Capitals in August.
"It’s a hockey life so you never know," Grabovski said. "You always think about the future and I think it's been a good move for me. Of course I felt terrible when they bought out my contract, but right now I feel excellent because they give me liberties so I can play my hockey and my style of hockey and you enjoy playing when people trust you and they give you a chance to play."
Among those who have shown trust in Grabovski this season is Capitals head coach Adam Oates.
"Grabo I think has done a very good job," Oates said. "He's come in and he's had to learn another system which isn't always easy… He’s played very well and his line (with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward) is playing very well for us."
"They’ve given us a great identity there. They create some zone time for us, they've done a good job, they’ve scored some big goals, I can play them against anybody at any time and that's a nice compliment."