A constant theme throughout this season has been whether or not the Toronto Maple Leafs would re-sign pending unrestricted free agent centre Mikhail Grabovski. The issue wasn’t only if they would get a deal done, but if they did what would the contract be worth. In the midst of the ups and downs of this roller coaster season the Grabovski contract has been a nagging splinter in the brain of Leaf fans. Yesterday morning it was released that the Leafs and Grabovski agreed to a five year $27.5 million dollar deal with an annual cap hit of $5.5 million per season. At first blush a $5.5 cap hit is way too much to pay for Grabovski. However upon further inspection the deal looks like one that Brian Burke and the Leafs really had no chance of avoiding.
Rock and a Hard Place
I have discussed the Grabovski issue at length on this blog, and have always maintained that there was absolutely no way the Leafs would allow one of their premiere forwards to hit the open market. What is frustrating is the fact that early on in this process the obstacles were apparent. The writing was on the wall for Burke and the Leafs the moment that the Buffalo Sabres signed Ville Leino to an absurd 6 year $27 million dollar contract with an annual cap hit of $4.5 mill per season. To provide an appropriate idea of how ridiculous and inflated the UFA market is keep in mind that Leino signed that contract with only 30 career NHL goals on his resume. Grabovski had 29 alone last season, and is on pace for another 25 this year. Grabovski is one year younger than Leino, is a two way centre (as opposed to a winger) and has a significantly superior track record in points production. Grabovski has 195 career points (and counting) heading into unrestricted free agency, while Leino had 73 career points when he struck it rich.
When looking at the contracts that have been signed the last couple of seasons by UFA’s or pending UFA’s (Tuomo Ruutu, Ales Hemsky Erik Cole, Tim Connolly, Joel Ward, Leino, R.J Umberger and so forth) the Leafs paid market value for Grabovski. The Leafs pivot is also the premier centre available in free agency this summer, and after Zach Parise the argument can be made that he is the best forward available (would you rather have Grabovski or Alex Semin?) Here is the full list of pending UFA’s, please tell me in the comments who the Leafs would replace Grabovski with should he have left? So the Leafs signed the premier free agent centre to play in Toronto for $5.5 million. Oh ya, he’ll also be playing for the blue and white between the ages of 28 and 33 (prime years for hockey players). Still think it’s a bad deal?
Many people are up in arms claiming that there is absolutely no way Grabovski should be making more money than players like Jordan Staal or Corey Perry. While you’re listening to the morons on the radio huff and puff over how dumb this contract is remind yourself that those comparables do not apply in the case of Grabovksi. Every season inflation causes contracts to rise. Meaning the amount of money player X signed for three years ago will be lower than the amount he will sign for this season. It’s economics Scott MacArthur, did they not teach it in Ottawa? Also, keep in mind that the contracts of Staal, Perry and whomever else they were screaming about were signed when those players were restricted free agents. Restricted free agents have no power in negotiations. The hammer ultimately lies with the team and not the player, which is why – along with inflation – those contracts are lower. In unrestricted free agency the hammer lies with the the player. Therefore in this particular case Grabovski and his agent were in charge, not Burke. Which begs the question, could the Leafs afford to let Grabovski walk?
While the constant point that I – along with many others – have made regarding the Leafs is that they lack that true #1 centre to lead their attack. In reality though is offense really an issue for the buds? They are the 8th highest scoring team in the league this season, and own the 9th ranked power play unit. On no occasion has anybody looked at this team and said the issue was the forwards and not the guys in goal or defense. The Leafs apparent ‘deep’ blueline as well as the rotating carousel in between the pipes has been the achillies heel this season, not the play of the guys up front.
In Grabovski Toronto has a legitimate 30 goal 60 point centre that dictates play. There are few centres that have as big of an impact as Grabovski does on the ice. Fans of advanced statistics quickly point out that Grabovski ranks only behind the Vancouver Canucks’ Ryan Kesler and the Boston Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron in controlling the play. I will not attempt to explain those stats, so please check out this great article by Steve Burch of Pension Plan Puppets illustrating just how valuable Grabovski is on the ice. In a nutshell what it details is that Grabo and his linemates play most of the game in the opposing teams zone, and rarely get stuck in their own defensive zone. Considering the Leafs primarily play Grabovski head to head against the oppositions best forwards this is quite a revealing stat. For an example, remember back to when Grabovki and his linemates dominated and dictated the play against both John Tavares and Evgeny Malkin in four straight games earlier this year.
While they definitely lack size the question certainly begs asking, can this current forward group led by Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Tyler Bozak succeed in the playoffs? Nobody knows, but let’s give it a chance before we jump to any conclusions. Should the Leafs make the playoffs this year I’ll assure you one thing, my worries lie more on the play of the blueline and less with the smaller forwards.
From training camp this season I believed that Grabovski would take a haircut to remain with the blue and white. The Belarusian has demonstrated that not only is he a critical member of the Leafs on the ice, but inside the dressing room he is looked upon as a leader and core player. There is a reason that Grabo wears an “A” on his blue and white sweater, and for that reason I expected #84 to sign a team friendly contract. Most people (myself included) would have been ok with a 5 year $25 million dollar contract for Grabovksi. While If you were Grabovski, and had two young children, would you leave $2.5 million on the table, and throw away your only opportunity to strike it rich on the free agent market? Could the Leafs have afforded to allow their top centre and one of their core guys, not to mention the best free agent centre that would be available this summer, to walk away for a measly $500,000? The answer to both questions is no. It ended up working out for both parties and now only time will tell if this becomes one of Burke’s good or bad moves.
When you think about it though can this team be competitive with $5.5 million of their cap allotted to Grabovski? With Tim Connolly’s $4.75 million, Lupul’s $4.25, Matthew Lombardi’s $3.75, Colby Armstrong’s $3 and Clarke MacArthur’s $3.25 all expiring next season the Leafs will have flexibility to rebuild their forward corps. With that in mind this contract will not hamstring the buds the way critics are screaming it will. The world around the Leafs should be all lollipops and teddy bears today because not only did Burke finally eliminate an issue that has been hanging over the teams head all season, but he has one of his established leaders finally locked up for five more years. At the end of the day logic prevailed for both the Leafs and Grabovski, hopefully fans utilize logic as well when assessing whether this is a good contract or not.