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Maple Leafs Watch: Grabovski learning the ropes

There was a moment in last Saturday’s triumphant 5-2 victory over Montreal when the Leafs celebrated Jason Blake’s game-sealing goal early in the third period. The players swarmed the diminutive sniper and as Mikhail Grabovski, who assisted on the marker, joined the fray, Blake looked the Belarussian center square in the eyes and let out a celebratory yell.

The duo, who not too long ago was being held apart by teammates in practice, seemed to be enjoying an all-is-forgiven moment. I don’t know if Blake said “I love you, man!” but it sure seemed like all was good for the Buds once again.

Since getting his latest wake-up call in that practice scrum (one which saw Jeff Finger hold him by the scruff of the neck, while Jamal Mayers chastised him for hitting Blake from behind), Grabovski appears to be a changed young man. In the past three games, Grabbo has seven points and is once again looking like a deadly weapon for the near future.

The best qualities Grabovski possesses are his speed and offensive drive. Against Washington on Tuesday, Grabbo was all over the ice – and that includes on the backcheck. You can tell the young man wants the puck and he can do a lot of things with it once he gets it.

This is a key on a Toronto team that, right now, does not have a lot of top-end skill on offense. Once again, the Washington game provides a snapshot – both regulation goals came from defensemen.

But since hooking up with Ukrainian Alexei Ponikarovsky, who has taken both Grabovski and young Russian Nikolai Kulemin under his wing, Grabbo is looking solid. He currently sits fourth in team scoring with 42 points in 70 games, which also puts him tied for third amongst NHL rookies, alongside St. Louis Blues freshman Patrik Berglund and ahead of No. 1 overall pick Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Originally acquired from the Montreal Canadiens for a second round draft pick and prospect Greg Pateryn, Grabovski has certainly had his ups and downs early in his career. Essentially let go by Montreal because they were already too deep down the middle, Grabbo has been roundly booed by the Habs faithful for his feud with fellow Belarussian Sergei Kostitsyn and for the fact he makes no secret of his distaste for the city and franchise that dumped him.

Of course, the Leafs can thank the Canadiens and their amazing scouting staff for drafting Grabovski in the first place and a cynic might say it had to take another team to find the Leafs an offensively gifted player in the draft. But that’s neither here nor there. Grabovski is a Leaf now and happy to be one.

He has admitted that as a young player he still has a lot to learn about the NHL and let’s not forget, even though he’s already 25 years old, Grabbo is still eligible for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.

And while that award will almost certainly go to Columbus goalie Steve Mason, with some combination of Berglund, L.A.’s Drew Doughty and Chicago’s Kris Versteeg as the runners-up, it goes without saying the Maple Leafs are glad to have the speedy Grabbo in the fold.

This article also appears in the Toronto Metro newspaper.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect-watch feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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