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:
- Kessel loves to score goals on the rush, and
- 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:
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:
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.