Ever since the Toronto Maple Leafs made the shocking decision to buy out Mikhail Grabovski and invest more money in Tyler Bozak, fans of other teams salivated over the prospect of a good offensive center suddenly available for free.
While Grabovski's down season in Toronto -- much of it tied to coach Randy Carlyle's bizarre deployment -- and his fiery exit may have depressed the number of bidders, it also made him something else: A likely bargain.
(Almost a Garth Snow "distressed asset" special, in that sense; though Grabovski's controversial history doesn't fit with typical Snow targets. The Isles don't tend to pursue players who publicly vocalize, even after they part, "I don’t feel any support from this [expletive] idiot." [in reference to Carlyle].)
I'm one of the Isles fans who would've loved Snow to try Grabovski, in a purely gluttonous "GIVE ME ALL THE CENTERS" kind of way. But it's understandable why the Isles didn't try -- or even if they inquired, why Grabovski chose the destination he did, signing with the Washington Capitals on an enticingly cheap one-year, $3 million "prove it" deal.
You're Mikhail Grabovski. Which Team Would You Choose?
The Capitals had a clear need at second-line center, and arguably had one last year when Mike Ribeiro was used in the role to the tune of great power play production but even strength struggles. Grabovski steps in as arguably the best talent they've had in the role since Sergei Fedorov, with a coach in Adam Oates who understands an asset like Grabovski does not mean, "better only give him defensive draws."
The problem with Grabovski last season, outside of a nagging injury, was Carlyle casting him in a bottom-six, defensive-oriented role. That's not this creative offensive talent's strength. (Carlyle even kept Grabovski out of a 10-round shootout.) And one suspects even a potato would realize that.
While the Islanders have a theoretical opening at second-line center, it's very much just that: theoretical. Buying that theory requires thinking Frans Nielsen cannot handle the mix of roles that usually makes him the second-most used Isles center (but he usually does, and excels), that Ryan Strome isn't destined to take the 2C spot (maybe you want him to transition on wing, or continue developing in the AHL), and expecting Brock Nelson and Casey Cizikas won't also vie to fill the two non-Nielsen/Tavares slots.
Even if you can make those cases, it would be hard for Grabovski or his agent to make it to themselves. Essentially, if Grabovski, seeking an opportunity to produce and bounce back from last season, bothered to look at the Isles depth chart down the middle, he would have easily seen the better opening is in Washington -- even without considering the off-ice Russia-friendly fringe perks of the Caps.
On the Island, you have Tavares, you have Nielsen's considerable minutes (whether you define them as 2C or 3C doesn't really matter), you have two exciting prospects knocking on the door, plus Cizikas and bargain signing Peter Regin too. Even if those don't work out or injuries strike, what you don't have is a lot of minutes that look different than what Grabovski had in Toronto under Carlyle.
The Caps Solved a Problem
Meanwhile, the bigger issue for Islanders fans isn't that the Isles didn't sign Grabovski, it's that new division rival Washington did. The Capitals have a tougher road to the playoffs now that they're out of the mercifully euthanized Southeast Division and back with the
Patrick Metropolitan gang, but now they've upgraded at a key area in even strength play.
Grabovski has always looked dangerous and put up points against the Islanders (a point per game against them over the past four seasons), so seeing him in a Caps uniform will be an unwelcome threat.
But more importantly than head-to-head, the new division alignment and playoff structure means both Eastern divisions get three automatic berths each, and the remaining two wild card berths go to the highest ranking remaining sides. So if the Isles don't gain third place in Division D, they'll need to hope fourth (or fifth) is good enough to beat out the remainders in the other division (the one now confusingly called the Northeast).
If the Capitals have a best-case-scenario debut in their new division, it's no stretch to think it would come at the Islanders' expense. With Grabovski now in the Caps' fold under a coach who has the right plans for him, that scenario just got more likely.