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Grabovski earning accolades with more ice time

by Dan Rosen
With Brian Burke making the decisions in Toronto now, perhaps the only untouchable on the Maple Leafs' roster is rookie defenseman Luke Schenn.

Then again, considering the former Anaheim GM was interested in acquiring Mikhail Grabovski this past summer while he was still working on the West Coast, maybe the 24-year-old Belarusian rookie won't have to worry about changing his address either.

Burke doesn't plan on making any moves until the calendar turns to 2009, but Grabovski, who ex-interim Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher pulled out of Montreal over the summer for a draft pick and a prospect, appears to be safe, at least for now.

"We tried hard to make a trade with Montreal last year to acquire this player," Burke said at his introductory press conference. "We were in on that. We really like him. I think he's rewarded Cliff's faith with his play. He's played extremely well."

Grabovski, who has 21 points through the first 35 games, has been so good at different points of this season that Leafs' first-year coach Ron Wilson has called him the team's best player on a number of occasions. He was definitely up for that honor in November, when he had 8 goals and 5 assists in 13 games and was a runner-up to Columbus goalie Steve Mason for NHL Rookie of the Month honors.

"He's been a dominant player," Wilson said after Grabovski had a goal and an assist in a 6-3 win over his former team, the Canadiens, on Nov. 8.

Wilson has rewarded Grabovski's strong play with more than 17 minutes of ice time per game, including some key power-play time. It was becoming quite obvious that he was never going to get nearly that much with the Canadiens.

"A player like that needs to play 17-18 minutes a night," Wilson said. "He can't only play 10 minutes a night. You don't get your opportunities and you don't get into the game."

Montreal selected Grabovski in the fifth round of the 2004 Entry Draft. The Habs used him for three games in 2006-07, but mainly he was a key player for the Hamilton Bulldogs, their American Hockey League affiliate, which won the 2007 Calder Cup.

Grabovski had 3 goals and 6 assists in 24 games last season. He averaged barely over 11 minutes of ice time in the games he played and was nothing more than a bit player on the Habs' top-rated power play.

"I think the Canadiens knew what they had in Mikhail, but you have to find room for people and they've got an unbelievable group of forwards over there with so much skill," Wilson said. "He probably wasn't going to get a fair opportunity. Fortunately for us we were able to pick him up."

Fortunately for Grabovski, too, because the July 3 trade probably saved his NHL career.

"I wasn't playing too much in Montreal, but I was always positive," Grabovski said. "I knew that could play at this level and I got more opportunity here. That's why I'm happy. I believe the coaching staff believes in me and that's why they're giving me lots of ice time."

Grabovski, who struggles with the English language and uses veteran forward Alexei Ponikarovsky as his translator, appears suited for to play for Wilson and Burke. He's hard-charging, responsible, fast, skilled and tough.

"I think I earned the ice time I'm getting now," he said. "I'm playing hard, driving the net, shooting the puck and scoring goals. That's what works and that's what we need."

"He's driving his legs really well," Ponikarovsky added. "He's going wide, shooting the puck and that's what it takes to be a good hockey player at this level."

Ponikarovsky has a soft spot for Grabovski because he understands what the youngster has gone through. Like Grabovski, Ponikarovsky came to a major market team as a youngster and struggled to adjust to the North American game and lifestyle.

"I think the Canadiens knew what they had in Mikhail, but you have to find room for people and they've got an unbelievable group of forwards over there with so much skill. He probably wasn't going to get a fair opportunity. Fortunately for us we were able to pick him up." -- Ron Wilson on Mikhail Grabovski
The only difference is the Leafs never traded Ponikarovsky.

"Sometimes it takes time for things to settle down for somebody," Ponikarovsky said. "For me, it took three years. I was up and down, playing 20 games or 25 games a season. Everybody has different ways. Some people get in right away and some have to work for it. You can't say everybody gets here the same way."

Ponikarovsky actually played in only 43 NHL games over his first three seasons. He finally stayed in the NHL for the entire season in 2003-04, playing in 73 games. He had a career high 45 points in 2006-07.

An eight-year veteran now, Ponikarovsky is on pace for his best statistical season yet.

"When I was going down (to the AHL) all the time, I didn't take that as a negative or make it a set time (where I had to be back)," Ponikarovsky said. "I knew I was going down there to play everything; power play and penalty kill and be on the first line. I knew I was going to get better playing time down there than just sitting up here. You have to play and get the game experience, otherwise you're not going to succeed."

Grabovski is getting that now because the rebuilding Leafs needed to find a young, skilled and relatively cheap center this summer.

It appears he was the ideal choice.

"His skill is good. You can see that," Ponikarovsky said. "I don't see anything that he's not capable of doing. I think he's good."

So does Brian Burke. That's important.

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