Newly signed center Mikhail Grabovski wasn’t present at Kettler Capitals Iceplex when Capitals training camp started on Sept. 12. Because of a visa problem, Grabovski was stuck in Toronto where he played the last five seasons with the Maple Leafs.
Grabovski’s first exposure to his new teammates came on Sept. 14 in Belleville, Ont. The Caps traveled up to Ontario to take on the Winnipeg Jets at Yardmen Arena, and Grabovski drove up from Toronto to join his new teammates for their morning skate.
He also stuck around for the game that night, sitting with and getting acquainted with Caps forward Brooks Laich. Laich made the trip to Belleville, but sat out the game because of a hip flexor injury sustained on the first day of training camp.
When the Caps travel to Boston tonight to play the fifth of their eight preseason games this fall, Laich and Grabovski will finally take to the ice for the first time in game action together, joined by Troy Brouwer on the right wing. During his time with Grabovski that night in Belleville, Laich started sowing what he hopes will be the seeds of some chemistry between himself, Grabovski and Brouwer.
“The first thing we want to do is make him feel as comfortable as we can off the ice and then that will transition into on-ice [comfort],” says Laich. “I was able to watch the game in Belleville with him, so I sat with him for a couple of hours there.
“I asked him is he married? Does he have a family? What does he like to do? Where does he spend his summers? We talked about a lot of that, we talked about our team, talked about our guys and I talked about the city a bit. I just tried to make him feel comfortable.”
Certainly, making a player welcome in his new off-ice environment and in the locker room is important and probably more so in the case of a player who signed late in the summer and whose arrival at camp was delayed. It’s also important to make the most of on-ice practice time, and the trio has had five days worth of skates and practices together heading into Monday’s game in Boston.
“Just reps, more reps,” says Brouwer, when asked about the key to developing chemistry with new linemates. “Some lines are lucky enough to have that chemistry right away where they just click.
“For us with a new centerman, me and Brooksie know each other pretty well; we’ve played together on and off the past couple of seasons. But with a new linemate, we’ve got to get used to him. He’s got to get comfortable with us and we’ve got to get comfortable with him. When you know where guys are going to be on the ice and you know where your outlets and support are going to be on the ice, that’s what I consider to be chemistry. That will come with more games and more reps.”
After spending the last half-decade in Toronto, Grabovski signed a one-year deal for $3 million with Washington last month. He knows that a big 2013-14 season could set him up for a bigger payday with more term next summer. Finding a way to quick chemistry with his new linemates can’t hurt in that regard.
“The best is just to relax and play and trust each other and play our best,” says Grabovski. “At center, I need to figure out how they play, so it’s more important for me to figure out how I need to play with these guys, how I need to pass the puck and where I need to stay. If I have something to say to them I’m going to tell them, ‘Like stay in this position,’ or ‘skate this way,’ It’s the same for them; they can always tell me. It’s our first game. Just talk on the ice and respect each other.”
Both Laich and Grabovski played in Europe during the lockout last fall, so they’ve been in this situation relatively recently.
“I’ve been the new guy in a locker room before, too,” says Laich. “And when you have somebody you can talk to it really goes a long way. And Brouws is the same way. I think our locker room in general is very welcoming. But [Grabovski] is going to fit right in. He opens up and he wants to talk and he wants to ask questions and joke around. It’s easy to do it on the ice once you know your teammates a little bit. He’s going to be great for us. He is going to be a tremendous player and a difference-maker for us.”
Playing in the KHL last fall, Grabovski started out the season playing with younger players but soon found himself skating on a line with Red Wings great Pavel Datsyuk and former Predator Alexander Radulov.
“I started with young guys and later I played with Datsyuk and Radulov,” recalls Graobvski. “With Pavel, he’s an unbelievable player. And I’m a center too so I understand what he wants. So we always changed. I played center and I played wing, and he played center and he played wing. They were easy to play with; we just moved the puck. And Pavel’s a nice guy too, nice teammate. Radulov is a hard worker on the ice, very easy to play with.”
Integrating new players seamlessly into the locker room and developing chemistry with them on the ice is an important process and one that can take some time. That’s why trade deadline deals don’t always work; it’s sometimes difficult to achieve the desired level of integration with a player or players joining a team so late in the season.
For Laich, it all comes back to the room and the rest of the guys. Make a new player feel welcome off the ice, and he’s bound to feel more comfortable on the ice.
“He comes here and he sees a lot of big-name players,” notes Laich. “And if those guys can grab him and say, ‘Hey, let’s go for lunch,’ or ‘Here’s my phone number, give me a call if you want to go for supper.’ Anything like that just goes a long, long way. If you’ve ever been a new guy in a locker room, if you’ve ever been there, you really appreciate somebody that does that for you. It’s a lesson that I really learned when I went to Switzerland during the lockout. You appreciate what players can do for you off the ice and how much that translates into your success on the ice. I’ve had people do that for me and I’m more than willing to do it for him, too.”
Grabovski has appreciated the effort from the rest of the Capitals so far in that regard.
“It’s helped a lot,” says the Caps’ new pivot. “I like playing with these guys. They’re good players.”