As impressive as the Toronto Maple Leafs were in their playoff series against the Boston Bruins, Mikhail Grabovski had a different experience. The forward had just two assists and was a minus-10 for the Leafs – a performance that came after a 9-goal, 7-assist one in 48 games this season.
I spoke with Grabovski about the Leafs’ playoff run; whether Game 7 was his worst loss of his career; his season under coach Randy Carlyle; his Datsyukian goal attempt; his incident with Max Pacioretty; and what the future holds.
Q. Let’s start with a couple of thoughts about the season.
GRABOVSKI: “The season turned to be positive overall. I wouldn’t say it was the best one for me or very successful, but it was certainly interesting, I gained a lot of experience.”
Yet it ended in a big disappointment. If you were asked to describe what happened in a few words, what would you say?
“I would say… You know, it is so difficult to describe it, very difficult to talk about it. It left a very bad feeling. But it was still an experience. It showed that as a team we are not yet ready to compete for the Stanley Cup. At the same time, we are almost there.”
Did you learn something new about the team during the playoffs?
“Yes, I would certainly say we learned a lot about ourselves. To me personally, I learned that the game is completely different in the playoffs. It is on a different level. The pressure you are under is also very different. We learned that we should be aiming higher, that it is so much more interesting to play in the playoffs, that there is that motivation. We as a team learned that we can certainly lay at that level. And I think the main thing we lacked is experience being in the playoffs as a team.”
Experience to close out a game?
“Exactly. We didn’t have enough experience to finish off the last game when we were up two goals. Maybe we can add to that we lacked some experience playing at home in the playoffs. Because when we lost that game at home in overtime, Boston really pushed us to our own net and held us there, and we didn’t couldn’t sustain that. But this is all experience that we came out with this season.”
Would you call the loss in Game 7 the worst in your career?
“I wouldn’t. I think the worst was when we [Team Belarus] lost to Latvia in the qualifier [for the Olympic games]. This loss to Boston was an experience that is valuable to everyone, something we will learn from a great deal.”
You mentioned earlier that the Leafs are close to the level of being a contender, or how far?
“How far? I think as far as the Bruins were from winning the Cup when I played against them for Montreal [in 2008] (Ed. The Bruins won the Cup three years later). I think our team will grow and add more year after year. And if we keep the core, the roster we had this season, I think it is fair to say Toronto will be a real contender.”
Coach Carlyle was using you inconsistently this season, sometimes as a shutdown center, sometimes not. Was it difficult for you to adjust to the changes and inconsistencies?
“It was an experience I gained that will certainly help me in the future, in the playoffs. And the playoffs showed that the season was the one I can count as a good one, even though I was not as productive, I enjoyed my game. I hope I am going to show progress in every role that the coach will use me in. Although I would really like to play more offence. I think this is my main strength with everything else, like the games against the Bruins, is an addition.”
How different were the coaching styles of Wilson and Carlyle?
“Yes, I think so. Wilson is more of a European type coach, if you can say that. Carlyle is a pure Canadian coach.”
Could you elaborate?
“Carlyle’ style is about power hockey, fast hockey, no mistakes in the neutral zone. A more rational type of hockey.”
What were you told during the exit interview before the team went on the summer break?
“I was told that I had a good season. What more could have been said? Everyone was very upset after that loss. But at the same time everyone is very determined, everyone is already thinking about the next season. I was told to get ready for the next season.”
What was the best moment of the season for you?
“The playoffs for sure. Even though for me personally it was without goals, without the positive plus/minus rating, the layoff games were the one of the highlights of my professional career.”
Could you talk about the trick you tried in the game against the Bruins, trying to bat the puck into the goal?
“Actually, I was trying to do something else, and I couldn’t get it done. I threw the puck in the air too far. My dad kept telling me to try to throw the puck behind the goaltender from behind the net. But I threw it too high too hard. Next time I will try to do it differently. I hope I will score then. My dad gave it to me after this attempt. He said ‘That’s not how I showed it! You were supposed to throw it behind the goaltender, not above him.’ I think it is a positive that I had this thought in my head. I think it showed that I am really enjoying hockey, that it brings me great satisfaction. I really enjoyed playoff hockey.”
I thought you took it out of Datsyuk’s playbook.
“I think playing with Pavel for CSKA in the KHL this season influenced me a lot. Just talking to him and watching him play will inspire you and give you ideas.”
What was it like playing in the KHL this season?
“In my opinion the time I spent there was great. It was a very good experience. I got to play with guys like Alex Radulov, Yakov Rylov, Sergei Shirokov and it was a pleasure. Pavel Datsyuk, of course. And if the season hadn’t started in the NHL, I think we would have competed for the highest honors with that team. The team chemistry was great, which had a lot to do with Sergei Fedorov, who is the general manager there. Fedorov helped me a lot to settle down. I liked the city [Moscow] as well. It’s a pity that it ended in January because it would have been nice to finish the season. But I don’t regret anything. Experience comes from everywhere. Besides, you can’t overlook the relationships with other people that developed and stayed. Thanks to the club for letting me play during the lockout, and to make some money, of course.”
What about the incident with Max Pacioretty?
“The incident? It wasn’t that much. He was choking me and I bit him. Don’t stick your hands where you shouldn’t. To be honest with you he was choking me pretty hard, to the point where I really couldn’t breathe. And I couldn’t pull his hand away at all. I tried to hit him with my other hand, but I couldn’t because he was choking me. There was nothing left to do but bite him.”
You like to set goals and make plans for an upcoming season. Have you done so for the next?
“It is too early to say at this time. After the loss such as the one we experienced, all you want to do is to get away and get some rest. It was a tough season, and you just want to recover, calm down and make decisions with a cool head. At this time I don’t want to think about that, I just want to spend time with my family, get some rest, and forget about hockey for a bit, although you’re still drawn to hockey because of the playoffs. You watch the playoffs to try and learn something. You inadvertently follow how the team you lost to is doing. And if Boston wins the Cup it will feel good, because you played against this team, the eventual winner.”
Give us your predictions for the playoffs.
“That would be really tough to do, because it is so difficult at this stage to single one team out. But I think Chicago and Los Angeles look really good. Los Angeles beat St. Louis, a very good team. The Blues were 2-0 up in the series, and Los Angeles still won. I think Los Angeles will be the contender [from the West]. Although you can never count Detroit out. And in the East, I think it’s Boston and Pittsburgh.”