Over the past three seasons, Leaf fans have witnessed the slow yet steady ascension of Belorussian centerman Mikhail Grabovski to the top of the depth chart. Brought in only months before the hiring of current Leafs GM Brian Burke, the 27 year-old pivot was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens for a second round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft and the rights to defenseman Greg Pateryn. His play in his first full season was up and down, but he finished with 20 goals and 48 points, good for fourth on the team. The recently completed 2010-11 season saw further progress in Grabovski's game, as he flirted with a 30/30 season at a reasonable cap hit of $2.9 million. Unfortunately, one of the downsides to Grabovski's signing of a short-term extension in the summer of 2010 was that he will become eligible for Unrestricted Free Agency on July 1st, 2012. He has quickly become a fan favorite, especially within the Barilkosphere, but there is certainly a chance this could be Grabbo's last hoorah with the Maple Leafs.
Much like the free agent class of 2011, the 2012 iteration is lacking in true star power. However, the first tier of players in the 2012 group will likely be four or five players deep. Names like Alexander Semin, Ales Hemsky, Patrick Sharp, and Mikhail Grabovski will comprise that first tier of free agents. There will be significant competition for the signatures of those players, and the amount of money on the table could be staggering. Ville Leino is coming off a 53-point season and was rewarded with a six-year, $27 million dollar contract. Scottie Upshall notched only 34 points last season and signed a four-year, $14 million dollar deal with the Florida Panthers. Suffice to say, 60+ point players such as Sharp and Grabovski will likely be looking in the 5-7 year range at $5.5 million per season or higher.
It's far too early to start wildly speculating on where these players might go, but I think it's reasonable to assume that Toronto is looking at a high price to retain Grabovski's services. This will be his first big contract; the deal that could set him up nicely for years to come. It would be tough for any player, barring a generous extension offer, not to test the free agent waters.
The NHL is also a game of numbers. While Grabovski isn't being pushed out the door, there are indications that the Leafs may be preparing for life without him. Signed through the 2012-2013 season are centermen Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi (will he ever play for Toronto?), and Tyler Bozak. Also consider that the Leafs have young Joe Colborne in the AHL, who should hopefully be ready for a full-time NHL gig by the fall of 2012. That's over $10 million in cap space eaten by four centers under contract through spring 2013. While no one is suggesting Grabovski has a foot out the door (or should for that matter), there seems to be a reasonable chance he could be heading that way.
Personally, Grabovski has grown on me as he has matured as a player. It would be a shame to see him traded in March or allowed to walk next summer. At the same time, I get the feeling that the Leafs front office doesn't necessarily view him as a long-term piece moving forward. And we know Burke won't offer Grabovski an extension during the season. As many have pointed out, the signing of Tim Connolly was a stopgap to buy time for the front office to re-evaluate the center position. I think it bought them less than a year, because they are going to have to make a very important decision regarding Grabovski's future in Toronto in a matter of months.