Just weeks before the start of their 2013 training camp, the Washington Capitals broke up what had been a quiet summer on Friday when they announced the signing of free agent center Mikhail Grabovski. The 29-year-old Grabovski signed a one-year deal that will pay him $3 million for the upcoming season.
A day before the NHL’s annual summer free agent emporium opened for business on July 5, the Toronto Maple Leafs shocked many in the league’s orbit when they opted to use a compliance buyout for the final four seasons of a five-year contract they signed with Grabovski a mere 16 months earlier.
A proven top six forward coming off a down year offensively (more on that in a bit), Grabovski was suddenly and surprisingly on the market. Just two days before the Leafs waived Grabovski, veteran center Vincent Lecavalier turned his own compliance buyout situation with Tampa Bay into a lucrative five-year deal with Philadelphia that will be worth a total of $22.5 million. That payout from the Flyers is in addition to the $1,761,905 Lecavalier will receive annually over the next 14 seasons and the $8 million in bonus money he’ll get from the Bolts in the next three years.
For Lecavalier, the buyout proved to be a boon. Not so with Grabovski, but that has the potential to change.
Teams went hard after top tier centers in free agency; the likes of Mike Ribeiro (four years at $5.5 million per), Stephen Weiss (five years, $4.9 million annually), Tyler Bozak (five years at $4.2 million annually) and Valtteri Filppula (five years, $5 million per season) were all signed within the first few hours of free agency and Derek Roy (one year at $4 million) signed with the Blues a few days later.
With the NHL’s salary cap dropping (from $70.2 million to $64.3 million) for the first time since its inception in 2005-06, around $180 million in potential salary outlay has been taken out of the market for the upcoming season. As a result, the secondary market of unrestricted free agents – those not snapped up soon after the store opened for business – has been much more sluggish than usual this summer.
Washington wanted to retain Ribeiro – the Caps made another offer to him on the morning of July 5 – but was hard-pressed to do so with the salary cap declining. Since the moment Ribeiro signed with Phoenix on the afternoon of July 5, Grabovski seemed like the most optimal replacement in the marketplace, and fans and pundits everywhere seemed to be clamoring for the Caps to sign the Belarusian pivot. But the Caps remained typically mum on the situation. When Caps general manager George McPhee met the media on July 8, he indicated that Washington would move forward with Brooks Laich as the team’s No. 2 center, the slot occupied by Ribeiro in the District last season.
Under the terms of Grabovski’s own buyout, he’ll receive $1,791,667 from the Leafs over each of the next eight seasons. When you add in the $3 million he’ll earn from the Capitals in 2013-14, Grabovski is taking an overall pay cut of just over 10 percent this season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent again next summer and can cash in then with a return to form in D.C.
Caps coach Adam Oates believes Grabovski can put himself in a position to earn a lucrative multi-year deal next summer with a strong season with the Caps in 2013-14. To that end, Oates made a trip to Los Angeles earlier this month to meet with Grabovski and his agent, a meeting designed to help sell the player on coming to the District.
“My pitch to him was not a hard sell,” Oates told me. “I kind of wanted to find out what happened in Toronto. I told him he was a good player in a unique situation because the league never had this buyout clause before. While emotionally it’s a tough thing, you’re in a unique position and you can consider any team that wants you. I gave him some information as to why he should consider ours.
“He fits into our puzzle. I talked to him about what a puzzle means to me, his skills set and where he’d fit.”
With Washington, Grabovski is likely to fill the middle of the second line left vacant by Ribeiro’s departure. Laich, who was limited to just nine games last season because of a nagging lower body injury, is expected to be back in the picture full-time this season and the Caps will also have left wing Martin Erat for the entire season. Erat was obtained in an April 3 deal with Nashville.
The addition of Grabovski gives Oates a lot of flexibility among his top six forwards. The Caps now have a dozen forwards under contract for 2013-14, and that doesn’t include restricted free agent Marcus Johansson or rookie right wing Tom Wilson. Johansson, who finished last season with a strong run on the left side of the first line with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, has yet to come to terms for the upcoming season. Wilson is signed, but the 19-year-old will have to earn a roster spot in training camp, a feat that is well within his ability.
The addition of Grabovski could lead to other changes on the Washington roster. The Caps could afford to part with a forward, and would likely be better off doing so vis-à-vis their current position with the salary cap. It’s also possible that Oates could shuffle the deck a bit with what he has on hand, and that’s something we’d see unfold when traning camp opens next month.
Ironically, Toronto’s own treatment of Grabovski may be what led to his depressed offensive numbers in 2012-13 and the team’s subsequent buyout of his deal just one-fifth of the way into its term. Under former Caps bench boss Ron Wilson, Grabovski thrived in Toronto in 2010-11. He totaled career highs in goals (29), points (58) and ice time per game (19:22).
The German-born pivot posted similar numbers the following season, but the landscape in Leafs Land began to shift around him. Just four days before signing Grabovski to a five-year contract worth a grand total of $27.5 million, the Leafs fired Wilson and replaced him with ex-Caps assistant coach Randy Carlyle. Less than a year after signing Grabovski, the Leafs also fired general manager Brian Burke, the man who signed Grabovski to that contract.
With Carlyle behind the bench, Grabovski’s role changed. He was dropped down in the lineup and was frequently deployed on the third or fourth line. After averaging 19:22 per night in his last full season under Wilson, Grabovski’s ice time was pared to just 15:34 a game under Carlyle in 2012-13. Predictably, the offensive numbers also dipped; Grabovski totaled nine goals and 16 points in 48 games last season.
In 2010-11, Grabovski’s 10 power-play goals ranked second among all members of the Maple Leafs. In the 64 games he played for Toronto with Carlyle behind the bench, Grabovski scored exactly one power-play goal. It came in Carlyle’s very first game as the Leafs’ bench boss.
Grabovski has three 20-goal seasons to his credit in the NHL and he has averaged .59 points per game over the life of his NHL career. Grabovski averaged .66 points per game in 276 games with the Leafs prior to Carlyle’s arrival and just .39 points per game in the 64 games he played in Toronto under the former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman.
During his days with the Leafs, Grabovski proved to be a strong puck possession player even when his role was changed to that of a player who was deployed more frequently in the defensive zone. He may start his Washington career as the team’s third center until he picks up the nuances of the Capitals’ system, but he should almost certainly see mostly top six minutes and will likely also have a role on the power play, perhaps even filling Ribeiro’s old spot down near the goal line.
Oates believes he has a formula in mind that will lead to success for the Caps and for personal success for his new center. He elaborated on that formula when he visited with Grabovski in Los Angeles.
“While we all want to win, there’s a formula,” says Oates. “I told [Grabovski], ‘I know the formula.’ I told him, ‘Not many coaches know the formula for an offensive guy. So I understand why with some teams if you’re a third line center, it would piss you off. I do. The other thing you’ve got to think about is you’re a point producer. You look at a team like Pittsburgh, they want to score five goals. Some teams like Boston, they want to score one.
“’You’re in a unique situation and you’ve got to think about that. I think you’d fit into our puzzle and if it works, great. Selfishly, I was a centerman so I think I can make you a better hockey player, personally. But you’ve got to want to come to us and hopefully it can work out.’ That took an hour and a half. I’m giving you the Readers’ Digest version. But it was good.”
Good enough that Grabovski absorbed it all and ended up signing on the line which is dotted. It’s going to be extremely interesting to see how it all unfolds and plays out from here, from the standpoints of the player, the coach and the team. It’s also going to be interesting to see how Grabovski’s presence in the lineup effects the rest of the Caps’ depth chart. More on that a bit later.