Mikhail Grabovski has scored 91 goals and recorded 117 assists the past five seasons. Clearly, he has skills.
One word, he said, drives it all.
“Emotion,” Grabovski said shortly after practicing with the Capitals for the first time following his free-agent signing with the team. “I’m an emotional guy. I play with emotion, with speed, with energy.”
It is the emotion that stands out. That can be a good thing, when it translates into a productive center who isn’t afraid to dig pucks out of corners, who can control the puck and quickly get it to the right place. That can be a bad thing, when it translates into a player who may get frustrated too much, who may lash out when he isn’t happy.
What are the Capitals getting with Grabovski, the 29-year-old Belarusian they signed to a one-year, $3 million deal to be their second-line center?
Is he the guy who was frustrated by his use last season in Toronto? The one who finally exploded when the Maple Leafs waived him in July and called coach Randy Carlyle an idiot modified by an expletive in an interview with TSN.ca?
Or is he the guy who had 51 goals and 57 assists the previous two seasons?
Is he the one emotion makes into a sparkplug or into a hothead?
The Capitals are banking on the sparkplug as they open the 2013-14 season Tuesday night in Chicago against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. Grabovski will anchor a line that will include wingers Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich, a line that could be very dangerous if all three can maintain a high level.
Early returns are promising. The 5-foot-11 Grabovski had a goal and seven assists in four preseason games.
“He’s going to be a great addition for us,” Laich said. “On the ice, you see first his speed takes over. He’s got great hands and he’s got an underrated shot. I think once he gets more comfortable with the puck and his linemates, he’s very capable of making plays for himself.”
Said Brouwer, “It seems like he skates and sees the ice pretty well.”
All good so far. But Grabovski hasn’t been around the Caps a month yet. If things weren’t glowing at this stage, there would really be a problem. How will things be when there’s the inevitable rough patch every player and team hit over the course of an 82-game season?
The Caps were comfortable enough to take that chance, and they think things will be just fine.
“We don’t want to put too much pressure on him,” Caps coach Adam Oates said. “I’m sure he’s very motivated. He’s not happy about what happened to him at the end of [last] year. We’re just looking for him to play good hockey for us.”
Happy hockey leads to good hockey and Laich thinks his new linemate is in a place where he can stay happy.
“Off the ice, he fits in great,” Laich said. “He’s very talkative, a good guy, likes to joke around. He was really on board right from the start. He keeps saying how much better he likes things oer here over previous places he’s been. I think we have a very welcoming locker room, but he’s really opened up already.”
And the emotion, Laich added, shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing.
“I’d say that’s great. I will play with a passionate player any day,” Laich said. “It means he cares. I think sometimes people underestimate him because of his size, but he’s a feisty little devil. I’ve played against him. Second, third opportunities, he’ll dig his nose in there. He doesn’t give up on plays. That’s the kind of attitude we want to have around here.”
That’s the type of attitude Grabovski promises he’ll bring. He said all he wants to know is what is expected of him and he’ll do his best to deliver.
“Every day of my life,” he said, “I try to be better and better. I tell myself all the time I can be better. I try to work my [butt] off, is that how you say it in English?”
That’s it indeed. Grabovski’s command of the language is quite good, which makes on- and off-ice communication much easier. He knows all forms of English, as his summer tirade against his former coach showed.
“Everybody sees the bad words,” Grabovksi said, chuckling a bit. “They don’t see the good words. I say lots of good words, too. I try to help every player who ever play with me. Wherever the coach puts me in the lineup, I try to do my best.”
He said the Capitals made it clear they wanted him and had a plan for him. He wouldn’t be left wondering about his role. When center Mike Ribeiro signed with Phoenix in the offseason, the Caps had a glaring hole and they’re calling on Grabovski to fill it.
“This is a team that really wants me,” he said. “That is important to a player, to know that someone likes you. You can play better for this team. Secondly, I like that atmosphere in the rink. You play against Washington, it is always a great place to play hockey. They have a lot of players who are great players. You can see guys are hungry to play and win games. Skilled players here. Smart players.”
Oates spent time in the offseason talking to Grabovski and was fine with the Caps signing him. He’s played with emotional players and coached some, too. He knows what he’s getting. He doesn’t want Grabovski to change.
“I want a guy to be himself is what I want,” Oates said. “Hopefully we talk often enough that we keep him going the right way.”