How about Mikhail Grabovski with Phil Kessel?

For some time I have yet to figure out why Phil Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski don’t see too much time together. I’ve posited the question before, and the common belief seems to be that you can’t have two people carry the puck through the neutral zone. It represents the talents of both players, and that’s that.

But I’ve grown a little skeptical of that theory. Grabovski is a play-driving centreman with scoring upside that Kessel, a speedy, talented winger with limited defensive qualities, needs to succeed. In 306 total minutes with Grabovski in three seasons, the Leafs have convincingly outshot their opponents, batting at a 55.9% possession rate. [Hockey Analysis]

Furthermore, if you check the “goals” link in the same link above, you’d find that Kessel and Grabovski are a +6 together, while Kessel is -18 without. I hesitate to use +/-, but the question I’d ask is “if Mikhail Grabovski and Phil Kessel are incompatible player types, why do they score so many goals when they’re together on the ice?”

Remember my old analysis of Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, I drew two conclusions:

  1. Kessel loves to score goals on the rush, and
  2. Lupul isn’t very good at defence

Using similar analysis, I looked back through all of Grabovski’s even strength goals this season to see where they came. Here’s the updated data, for whether these players tend to score off possession shifts, such as a forecheck or faceoffs, or off the rush:

  Rush Possession % Rush
Kessel 13 9 59%
Lupul 7 6 54%
Grabovski 10 6 63%

From this, you can see that Grabovski loves to scores goals, like Kessel, by using the speed game.

Now, does he generate his own speed and would thus leave him incompatible with Kessel?

I don’t know about that. There are some plays where Grabovski knocks a puck free, or is the first man back in support, and the puck eventually finds him after the puck carrier brings it into the zone:

Plays like this:

Or this:

Or this:

Basically, Grabovski carried the puck on just one of his ten goals off the rush. He plays a very smart two-way game and picks his spots offensively. When he sees that hole in that high-slot area, he darts to it.

Considering how powerful of a one-way unit Kessel and Grabovski are, I think it’s the natural fit to use him as the first-line centre. Just today, Eric at NHLNumbers showed how important it is to gain the zone, whether by carry or by pass. If Grabovski’s goals are a representation of his overall play, then we can conclude that Grabovski’s primary talent is establishing possession—bringing the puck through the neutral ice was something accomplished a lot by Clarke MacArthur.

So let’s, say, put Kessel with Grabovski and Lupul. That means that James van Riemsdyk can still play the wing with MacArthur with, say, Tim Connolly between them. A third line of Nikolay Kulemin, Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri is remotely feasible. We don’t have too much of a read on Bozak’s true talent, but Kulemin and Kadri are quality enough players to keep that line from getting devlishly hemmed in their zone, particularly if they were playing some soft minutes.

Brian Burke is still going to be active in finding a number-one centreman. As far as I’m concerned, the Leafs already have one.

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  • Moe Green

    Very nice analysis. I’m not sure if you’ve seen the advanced statistics recently posted, but there are many comparisons made between Grabo and Kessel. Grabo is the most effective 2-way player on the Leafs, pairing him with Kessel may be very interesting

  • Moe Green

    Look back to the OT goal against the Penguins Grabo scored as well. Crisp passing between Kessel and Grabo left MAF stoned.
    The centre problem will most likely be served internally with Colborne. In a recent interview he was still growing (he is 6’6, 215lbs now) and if his wrist heals correctly he will impress at training camp. Dudley also noted Underhill could help Colborne’s explosiveness and other skating deficiencies.
    If Colborne is ready, only then Connolly can be dealt.
    Move Grabo up with Kessel and Lupul, Have JVR play with Colborne and Kadri. Third line MacArthur, Bozak, Frattin. Fourth line Komarov, McClement, Steckel.

  • Moe Green

    this almost seems too obvious…the only argument i have heard against this is that the leafs dont have enough scoring depth to have an efficient second unit while playing kessel and grabovski on the same line

  • Moe Green

    I really like your analysis of the Grabo Kessel combo. The thing for me is this. The staff deciece to play them separate to spread out the talent across the board so that at least 2 of the four lines are threat to score. Otherwise, if the Leafs can add another piece at Centre who could lift the second line with say Lupul then Grabo and Kessel could find themselves a scoring duo this year. Unfortunately the summer is still young and we have yet to see if all our top six are going to be with us at the start of the season. It is more than likely one or two may be traded. Let’s wait and see.

  • Moe Green

    Thanks for writing this, I have felt the same way for a while now. Kessel is our best winger. Grabo is our best center. There really isnt a very strong arguement to NOT pair up Kessel and Grabo. Grabo is way more capable than Bozak defensively and is better offensively. And of the plays I remember where Kessel and Grabo play together they have shown good chemistry. Giving Phil and Joffrey a left handed shot will also open up some passing lanes that arent available with the right handed Bozak.

  • Moe Green

    I have been saying this for a couple of seasons now. For me Grabovski is crafty and thinks the game at the speed of Kessel. I think these two would soar together and the second line this eyar should be stronger with JVR and possibly Kadri or Colborne at centre. The time is now. Bozak should be on the third line where he will shine. Good article.

  • Moe Green

    It’s rare to see people making so much sense. (both the original analysis and comments)

    A skilled left stick at centre has obvious potential benefits on a line with Kessel. Ideally, JVR brings size there too but he may not be up to the task. And what Grabovski lacks in size, he makes up for in fearlessness and tenacity.
    If JVR can’t pull off the #1 centre role, I suspect we’ll see Grabovski get a shot.
    I don’t know why Wilson stuck with Bozak there, especially while the Leafs were crashing and burning, but I don’t think Carlyle will.

    And I agree Bozak will shine on the 3rd line. In the limited time he was playing there he looked like a natural fit. He’ll have a long successful career as a 3rd line centre, I believe, and will win over a lot of fans.