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Puck Daddy chats with Mikhail Grabovski about Maple Leafs’ playoff chances, Phil Kessel, the Canadiens and his next NHL contract

Dmitry Chesnokov
Puck Daddy

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With 29 goals in 81 games last season, Mikhail Grabovski of the Toronto Maple Leafs beat his share of defensive players. But which defenseman in the NHL does the 27-year-old forward think is the most difficult to play against?

"I have to say Nicklas Lidstrom. He is one of the best players. It is so difficult to get the puck from him. At the same time, it is very difficult to adjust to the way he plays. It is very difficult to play against defensemen who can control the puck, the ones who don't just dump it," said Grabovski in a recent interview with Puck Daddy.

"Zdeno Chara, too. I don't have very good memories of Chara from last year. I think he has made me faster, he made me pay more attention to hits, to be more maneuverable."

Getting hit by the Boston Bruins' Norris Trophy winner is certainly an education:

How badly was Grabovski injured on the play?

"Well, I think I had a mild concussion, he said. "But I recovered pretty quickly. And now I am feeling absolutely fine."

Grabovski is also feeling fine about the Leafs' future, as we spoke about that along with discussions about his next NHL contract; his feeling about the Montreal Canadiens; the way the media treats Phil Kessel; the potential of James Reimer; Brian Burke's feelings on European players; and the usual questions about music, cars and booze. This is a long chat, so enjoy!

Q. The Maple Leafs played some good hockey at times last year. What in your opinion is the main factor missing for the team overall to be more consistent and win more?

GRABOVSKI: "In my opinion we simply haven't had enough time to play together as one team, and not for one year but longer, like two-three years, so that the players develop chemistry, so that a foundation is created, so that lines get established and consistent. It's difficult to achieve the result when there are so many changes when it comes to players. We are also a very young team. I think we are the second or the third youngest team in the League when it comes to age. And as with any young team, time is needed. I think the results we showed at the end of last season prove that we can play with the roster we have. Plus we have a good goaltender now who can always save us at the right time."

What did Ron Wilson tell you during the post-season meeting before you left for Belarus?

"He didn't say much. He told me to carry on the way I play. He told me we should have at least two scoring lines. We continue to be one of those scoring lines. We now need another line that will support us in scoring, to be the same type of the line we were last season. That's what he told me. He also wished me to have a great vacation."

So, how many goals are you going to score this year? What would you wager?

"I wouldn't want to guess… How many? I think 29, or 39, or 49…"

It has to end with a "9"?

"I think so. There should be that one missing from the round number. Because there should always be a motivation to do better. I will actually score as many times as Kulemin assists me."

Are you worried about the offseason acquisitions made by the Leafs, like Matthew Lombardi, who could limit your ice time?

"The most important thing is that it has to benefit the team. If the coach thinks I should have less time and the players who come to the team will perform, then why not?  Our goal is to win games and collect points in every game. I will be happy with any kind of ice time as long as we win."

This is not the first offseason you are training with Nikolai Kulemin?

"I came to train here in Orange County (Southern California) alone three years ago for the first time. And last year Nikolai joined me. It is a great place to have your preseason training, because you can also bring your family and they always have something to do as well. Unfortunately I couldn't bring mine this year, but Kulemin is here with his entire family. Which is great, because not only can you train here, but it is also sort of a family vacation. The ocean is right here, all these sunsets are great."

Southern California is an interesting pick for a preseason hockey workout.

"Our agent, Gary Greenstin, found a fitness and conditioning coach here and shooting and skating instructors. I have been working with conditioning coach for some time and I believe it is going great. So, why fix something that isn't broken? We have also already started skating here with some other guys, including NHL players from different teams. For shooting and skating program, we use a special ice facility. Also we are skating at the Anaheim practice facility. Selanne skates with us, a few other Anaheim players."

Have you started working on some plays with Kulemin that you will use during the season with Toronto?

"We are trying to come up with something. And not only when we skate. Even when we are not practicing we are trying to come up with different plays we could pull during the season. But this isn't the main point for our training here. We are here to get ready for the next season. We are trying to encourage each other to get better and better. He is physically a little bit bigger than I am, so I am always trying to keep up with him and not to let him get ahead too much. He is motivating me."

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I read one of your interviews you gave in Belarus where you said that the Avalanche "is the only team in North America you would gladly go to from Toronto." Where did this special love for Colorado come from?

"I have loved this team since childhood, when Forsberg played for them, [and Val] Kamensky. I always followed them. I used to wake up early to check game scores. Back then they were still in Quebec. I was 8 or 10 at the time. And when they moved to Colorado my connection to the team remained. I always like playing against them. Unfortunately we only play them once a year. We only play in Colorado once every two years. And it's always special for me to play on the same ice that my role models played on, the guys I always liked like Forsberg, Adam Foote, Chris Drury."

Which one of them was your idol?

"Forsberg. Not an idol, but someone who I really liked as a player, someone I always watched play. I learned from him. To me he was one of the best. Colorado's series against Detroit were always the ones I was really looking forward to. I couldn't wait to wake up the day after to see the score."

I also read one of your interviews where you said that the Leafs are your favorite club and "are the team you gave you a chance when you were living through not the happiest of times." Were you talking about Montreal when you said "not the happiest of times?"

"I don't think I said 'not the happiest of times,' I think I said 'not the best of times.'  When you are not playing you always feel somewhat down. I have been playing hockey my whole life and, of course, I was upset that I spent so much time on the bench. The most important for any hockey player is to actually play. And in Montreal I wasn't given much opportunity to play. I kept waiting for the moment when I would be presented with a chance because I wanted to make the most of it."

Montreal seems like an unhappy place for Belorussian players — you didn't cut it there, Sergei Kostitsyn was traded, and now it looks like his brother Andrei may be in hot waters.

"I think that people who worked for Montreal treated me absolutely great including the general manager. It's just every coach has his own view of hockey. And unfortunately it just didn't work out between me and the coach I was working with there. We couldn't find the common ground. At the very least he didn't see the player who could make the team better in me. I know that the general manager and the other management were satisfied with the way I played. Also if you look at all the guys who are no longer with Montreal, the guys who won the Calder Cup with Hamilton, they are not playing for the Canadiens. A lot of those guys are playing somewhere else. Unfortunately we couldn't keep the core who won the Calder Cup in Hamilton together. But it is [Montreal's] business. They are always searching for something, trying to find something. And I have to thank Bob Gainey who gave me a chance and let me go to Toronto."

You spent some time in the Canadiens organization from Hamilton to the big club. And now you're in Toronto — one of Montreal's fiercest rivals. Did it feel strange at first? Are games against Montreal still special for you?

"Games against Montreal are always special for me. Especially when you're playing in Montreal because the arena is so much different from the rest in the NHL — there's some kind of special energy. It was especially special for me during the first year I was with Toronto. And right now that passion has subsided. A lot of players who motivated me a lot to play better against them, or the coach are no longer in Montreal. It's a different team there now. And to me they are just another opponent now. And at the same time, unfortunately for me, they are not a lucky opponent. That's because I don't think I scored any goals against them in the last two years. That's something to work on."

Both Toronto and Montreal are cities crazy for hockey. Where is it more difficult to play?

"I don't think it really depends on the city. It's difficult in either. But it is actually a quite difficult question. I just really like playing in Toronto because everything worked out for me here. At the same time I still have a lot of friends in Montreal and I think it would have been easy for me there if I actually played. I think I would have been able to establish communication with anyone there. The most important thing is to play. And if you're playing everything else is different."

Brian Burke doesn't seem to be a big fan of European players. What did you do to impress him?

"I don't know if I have impressed him, because we still have a long road ahead of us. There are always things I have to work on. But Brian Burke selects the team with care, and all of the players he needs stay. He is a man of principles and if you give it your all on the ice, if you follow the game plan, like if you have to play physical and you do, then you play. I am happy he found some qualities in me that he likes and I am playing. It's not about European or North American. He had a few European players playing for Vancouver when he was a GM there. He is more concerned with how each individual player performs and not where that player is from. Plus, I am from Belarus. And Belarus isn't really considered Europe. We're not a part of the European Union and everyone turns away from us. So, I am not really considered a European."

I didn't mean the European Union… You are 27 now and entering the last year of your contract. At this age your next contract will most likely be your last big one. What will be the most important factor for you: the term, the money or a particular team you'd like to play for?

"To me the team I play for will be the most important factor. And that team is Toronto, the team I play for now. At this time I don't want to think about long-term deals, short term deals. I have a full year ahead of me and we have a different goal. That's why I don't want to think about the contract at this time. At the same time you always want to stay with the team that you like playing for, the team you love. So, I think everything will depend on the next season."

Have you had any discussions with the Leafs about the new contract?

"My agent told me that the Leafs manager will contact him soon."

Are you doing anything different getting ready for this upcoming season knowing that this is your contract year?

"As I mentioned the goal is not the contract. It's been a few years since the team made the playoffs. We weren't too bad last year, but our main goal is to try to win every game. That's the main goal. And the contract will come with the way I play. The contract will depend on the way I play next season. If you do something worth paying for, then you will be paid for it.  If you play well you will be paid accordingly. There is no easy money."

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Toronto hasn't made the playoffs in a while. How do players react to that in the locker room?

"I think we went through 32 players in the time I have been playing for Toronto. I think the only people who are left from all those years are me, Kulemin and Schenn. But I think we have been progressing with every year. And I think the core that we have now will be together for 2-3 years. Look at the Bruins, they didn't win the Cup right away either. They were slowly building. It takes time to build a winning team. Our GM has built a few winning teams and he knows what he is doing, he has a vision. And we, players, have to perform and get the results."

How important will the play of your goaltender James Reimer be for the success this season?

"A goaltender is 50 percent of the team. But at the same time I also don't think that you have to rely on your goaltender all the time. All forwards, all defensemen have to play their part. And when a team as one unit sticks to the goals set by the coach, then the results will come. Goaltender helps us and we help our goaltender. These are the ingredients for the good results."

Who is the "dark horse" on the team? Who is ready to have a breakout season?

"I think Tyler Bozak has a really great chance to do it. Last year wasn't that good for him, but I think he's got so much better and mature. I think everyone should expect a lot from him this coming season."

What do you think about the way Phil Kessel is treated by the media? Would you say he is treated unfairly?

"I think he is a leader. He is a player who has to bring the result. And sometimes unfortunately the media puts a lot of pressure on him, but he is still playing the leading role on the team. He is the player of the highest class. I think with a player like him we should get the results we are looking for this year. Maybe he just didn't have enough consistency, maybe the right linemates couldn't be found for him to have better understanding and chemistry. But I am certain that this year will be a much better year for him than the one before."

You were the captain of Belarus National Team in this year's World Championships. What did being a captain teach you and how will that experience help you on the club level? Who is the model captain for you?

"That's a good question. Being a captain was a great experience for me. For the first time in my career I was handed such a great responsibility. I wouldn't say I was able to realize the role I was given to the full. Unfortunately the captain didn't show the kind of game a captain should show. But I am happy I was presented with the opportunity to try myself in this role and I think the experience will certainly help me in Toronto. I was actually thinking about that being a captain for the national team will help me be a better leader not just on the ice but also in the locker room in Toronto. It all comes with experience, and I have a little bit of such experience, which will certainly help me in Toronto.

"I really like out captain Dion Phaneuf. He is the real captain I can really hear in the locker room. I really like him as a captain. That's why I will only agree to be his assistant in Toronto. I listen to him and think 'Could I be the same captain in the locker room?' I don't think I could.' There are different types of captains, but you can always hear him in the locker room."

Highly respected Bob McKenzie said you were the Leafs' Most Valuable Player last season. Where do you need to improve to be even better?

"I don't even know. I think I have to try to advance and become better in every component of my game or at least play on the same level. It is important not to lose what you already have, what you have achieved thus far, not to regress. And as I have a chance right now, I would like to thank him for the compliments. In my second year I certainly didn't deserve them, but in my third year I got myself together and played a lot better. I also had a lot of ice time. Good play depends on a lot of components. Even how things are going in my family are also very important to me. My family helped me a lot. I will do things exactly the same way I did them last year."

Colby Armstrong called you "Crosbovski" last year implying you were the team's Crosby. Is this your nickname in the Leafs' locker room?

"Ha ha, yeah, I read that online. He did call me that a few times. Armstrong is such a comedian. He always comes up with his special names for everyone. So, to him I am Crosbovski. So, let it be. To me he is Armstrongov. That's how I call him."

How often do you watch highlights of your goals on YouTube?

"I watch videos of the things I couldn't do to figure out why I couldn't do certain things. I want to remember how things happened. And by watching videos you remember how everything happened. I analyze a lot of plays. Sometimes I watch entire games, it helps me."

But what's your favorite goal?

"The goal I scored against Boston the day after my daughter was born. That goal last year means so much to me."

If you had to pick five players playing anywhere in the world right now to be on your line, who would they be?

"Oh, this is a difficult question. I don't want to offend anyone. There are so many excellent players. I would have to say that I'd stay with the guys playing on the same line with me right now. And I will also pick Pavel Datsyuk to play defense."

What's playing in your iPod now?

"There is so much in there. I play different music depending on my mood. When I am practicing or when I need inspiration I play the Rolling Stones. If I have a problem, if something doesn't come out right I always listen to the Stones. The song I listen to the most is 'God Gave Me Everything.'  I really like the song and it is with me throughout my career."

What are you driving these days?

"A BMW X5. I also have an X6 in Minsk. It sits there all winter waiting for my summer visits. I am a BMW fan. I am like a child when it comes to my X6."

What is your adult beverage of choice?

"Alcohol? Don't athletes, hockey players not drink alcohol?  But I always like having some good wine. I didn't experience it until I came to North America. Here players can have a glass of good wine with dinner. I also listen to Igor Larionov's advice when it comes to wine. I do like beer too, but only in the summer when it's hot."

And finally, tell us what exactly happened during the Olympics in Vancouver when you were detained by the Vancouver police?

"Nothing really happened. Just a situation when we were walking down the street and some people started harassing us. So we had to get into a self-defense mode. I am a very peaceful person but I can stand up for myself."

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