Mikhail Grabovski formally announced his retirement from professional hockey last week. He has recently been working with the KHL Team Dynamo Minsk, and will be their assistant coach next season.
His five season tenure on the Maple Leafs was memorable to Leafs fans for many great reasons, and even more so here at PPP. It spanned the dawn and development period of hockey’s analytics revolution in which we provided a platform for anyone to participate in, shall we say, robust discussions about the emerging theories and analysis of the game. Grabovski’s skill at center was a regular feature of those discussion.
Most importantly was how Grabovski was not only good at hockey, but that he visibly enjoyed playing the game, and playing the game here in Toronto. That’s what endeared him to all of us.
Let’s take a quick look back at how he wormed his way into our hearts.
Trader Cliff was defrosted from cryostorage in 2008 after MLSE fired John Ferguson Junior. True to his name, Fletcher made a trade with the divisional rival Canadiens. Greg Pateryn (who is playing with the Wild these days) and a second round draft pick were sent to the Habs in exchange for a new centre for the Leafs. The goal was to help plug the hole from Mats Sundin leaving the Leafs for retirement and absolutely not playing for any other NHL team!
Mikhail had tremendous success at the most recent World Hockey Championship (for Belarus),” Cliff Fletcher said in a statement. “He has great upside and we will look for him to contribute for us right away at the centre position.
Grabovski would end up staying, even having positive words for Ron Wilson, and signing a new contract in 2009 for an AAV of $2.9M per year. Quite a bargain, even with the cap being only $56.8M way back then.
The Pineapple Assassin
Grabovski arrived at a time of explosive growth for hockey blogging. PPP itself was already well off the ground. The site had migrated over to the SB Nation platform about 18 months earlier. PPP himself and the likes of Down Goes Brown were here churning out content. There were lots of commenters in our free-wheeling THUNDERDOME that are still here to this day.
Grabovski arrived at a perfect time in the world of fandom we created, complete with his own built in meme. Grabovski was The Pineapple Assassin.
He eventually commented on this photoshoot saying he barely remembered it, or why he was stabbing the pineapple in the first place. It didn’t matter to us. A meme was born and, as they do, rapidly evolved. With the help of the iconic talking pineapple Ananas from the 1980’s Canadian public television show Telefrancais, we learned Grabovski was actually on the front lines of stopping a world takeover by pineapples.
He only helped us further love him by doing things like this.
Or by showing us he hated the Habs, and Sergei Kostitsyn in particular.
This was no “enigmatic Russian.” He was a Maple Leaf who wore his heart on his sleeve and loved every minute of it. He scored 29 goals in the 2010-11 season, and another 23 in 74 games the season after that. Not to mention he was extremely fit.
Then something happened in early 2012, which changed everything.
The Carlyle Era and the Leafs-Bruins Playoff Series
It was March 2, 2012 when Ron Wilson was fired as the Leafs arrived in Montreal for a Saturday night game. Brian Burke’s old buddy Randy Carlyle was hired to replace him almost immediately, even showing up for that game on only a few hours notice. The Leafs won that game 3-1, with Grabovski scoring two goals and having the primary assist on the first. It was an auspicious start.
The NHL locked out the players through the end of 2012. The league finally resumed in 2013 for an abbreviated season.
Things did not go well from there between Carlyle and Grabovski.
We long ago established Carlyle was not an effective coach. You can mince words and point out he was dealt a group of players which were middling in the league, that he had bad goaltending, and that he did his best to salvage something from all of that. You could also point out he had another chance in Anaheim last season with a different group of players and he blew it spectacularly once again.
Grabovski was definitely on the outs with the new coach. It all came to a very public head when the Leafs were playing in Winnipeg on March 16, 2013. It was a Saturday night game broadcast on Hockey Night In Canada. The game went to a shootout which lasted a ridiculous ten rounds. Carlyle never put out Grabovski. Even defencemen Cody Franson and Dion Phaneuf went out to try and score (they didn't.) The Leafs lost that game when Zach Bogosian finally got a shot past James Reimer.
Grabovski saw less ice-time than ever at the start of the Leafs series against the Bruins that year. Carlyle even played both of Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren in Game 1 for almost ten minutes each. There alleged most valuable hockey skill was to prevent the Bruins thugs from roughing up the Leafs players. They wound up doing nothing to stop that.
We all know how that series turned out. Game 7 would later turn from an epic disappointment into an epic disaster because of the Leafs’ management’s myopic and warped view of what happened in the series. Grabovski was a casualty of their singular focus on that game. He deserved better than to be unceremoniously dumped from the team via a convenient CBA compliance buyout while management brought in players which the data showed would make the team worse, not better.
At least he got the last laugh by dunking on Dave Nonis and Carlyle.
Grabovski will now move behind the bench as an assistant to coach for Dinamo Minsk in the KHL. Yet, as he says in his goodbye message, his heart will always be here in Toronto.
And ours will always be with him.
I hope you are back to excited about hockey now, Mikhail. Good luck, and may you slay all the pineapples.