Hockey, Sports, The Campaign to Fire Brian Burke

The Campaign to Fire Dave Nonis: The Grabovski Buy-Out

This is what I wrote in March 2012 when the Leafs extended Grabovski, just over a year ago:

I like Grabo. He is probably my favourite forward on the Leafs at the moment. But liking him has nothing to do with sound hockey decisions and this contract is not a sound hockey decision.

Grabo may very well be the best all-around forward on the Toronto Maple Leafs, but that is damning with faint praise. He is a #2 centre and frankly, he isn’t even an elite #2 – an elite #2 would be someone who merits regular consideration as a possible #1. Sure, the Leafs still don’t have a #1 centre, but is that any reason to overpay someone who isn’t a #1? Look how well that worked out with Connolly.

So Grabo is a #2 centre: a top 6 forward, a top 10 skater, etc. As of this contract, he is now getting paid the 2nd most on the team behind Phaneuf. It is a raise of nearly 100%. Now Grabovski has certainly performed well, but I would argue that he has performed somewhat better than you would expect a player making slightly less than $3 mil / season to perform, not doubly better.

And then there is the length. Yes, Grabo hasn’t been in the league long, but has anyone checked his age lately? He is 28. He will be 33 at the end of this deal. Will he be putting up 50-60 points per year at 32 or 33? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s pretty tough to know because compared to most NHL players, Grabo is in his prime right now. I.e. he probably will be putting up more like 40 points in his early 30s, but it’s a gamble. I’m just not sure how smart it is.

Because the thing is Grabo does have a little bit of an injury history and he also plays that style that does incur the odd injury. So couldn’t it be a little shorter?

But the length would not be as much of an issue if the obvious per year discrepancy didn’t exist. Grabo is being paid like he is the most important forward on the team. Maybe he is, but he is the most important forward on a 12th place team which needs to improve somehow this summer because, as usual, they are not bad enough to improve through the draft.

So how do they improve this summer? Well by signing and trading. But currently they have about $7.6 million in cap space this summer and 5 roster spots unaccounted for. That means some RFAs probably aren’t sticking around unless Burke makes a trade.

So essentially what this deal does is it forces Burke to make a trade. That could be a good thing. He has shown that he can sometimes make a good deal. He has also shown that he can make the odd bad deal. But he has to deal. Otherwise the 2012-13 Leafs will be pretty much the same team as this one. I know I’m excited.

So I was somewhat wrong: the cap went up a bit and the Leafs traded Schenn for JVR, who costs more than Schenn. But the Grabo contract put them in financial difficulties this summer – I was off by a year – and it was made far worse in the eyes of everyone by Grabo’s off year this past season.

  • The contract seems to have convinced Bozak that he is worth almost as much as Grabo, which is patently ridiculous and it generally set a bizarre standard where players could weigh their mediocre performance against Grabo’s and decide they should get so much money.
  • Also, something I didn’t know at the time: most NHL skaters peak offensively at 25. And as we all know Grabo signed this deal significantly later than 25.

As much as I liked Grabo, I hated that contract and I think this course of action makes sense, even if it seems impulsive because of his career-bad season. (It does not make sense if it is designed to make room for Bozak’s hilarious $40 million-for-8-years proposal, but that is a separate issue.) Grabo will likely bounce back next year – wherever he plays – but it will hardly be a $5.5 million bounce-back. And we can’t expect him to get better; he’s not exactly young in hockey terms.

My one concern with this move – not really a concern with the move itself, but rather the freedom it gives Nonis – is that the Leafs will now chase Clarkson – a winger, no less – or Briere or Ribeiro and will overpay them. I don’t think any of those options are as bad as re-signing Bozak for $40 million over 8 years, but they aren’t good. Free agency signings of “marquee” players – whoever is the best available in a given year – rarely turn out well for the team that signs the “marquee” player. Witness Brad Richards.

The above is what I wrote yesterday when I learned the news about Clarkson. Then I read this article [404s, link removed] by a guy who I read occasionally and respect. It argues this was a stupid decision. I agree with many of his premises – I might go so far as to say Grabovski was actually the best forward on the Leafs in the time cited as his game is more complete than Kessel’s – but I still think we can list reasons why Grabo was bought out:

  • He was flat-out paid too much to be the sixth most important forward on the team this past season.
  • He was not going to get better offensively as the contract progressed – he is 29.
  • He has injury problems and they appear to be getting worse.
  • His contract set a terrible precedent on the team: though he may have been the most valuable forward on the 2011-12 Maple Leafs, they were a bad team. The team needed to improve and unfortunately paying Grabo $5.5 a season meant that others – cough Bozak cough – would then assume that they were owed similar money. What is Kessel going to ask for now? $7 million? $8? At least he can no longer point to Grabo’s deal as proof he should be paid more.
  • Grabo made himself untradeable this season.
  • Though I believe Nonis should have traded Lupul to get cap room, we all know that never would have happened. The only way to trade Grabo at this point would have been to wait until this upcoming season and hope he had a better year. Maybe that was the right course, but obviously Nonis didn’t want to wait. I can’t say I fully agree with this strategy I understand the buy-out.
  • No matter how much of a bounce back year Grabo has this season – or any future season he would have been on the Leafs under this old contract – it will not be a $5.5 million season. If he does somehow have a career year, it is something that is completely unpredictable. Managing sports teams involves taking calculated risks and this bet that Grabo will never return to his 2010-11 self – when he was one of the best #2 centres in the league – is a reasonable bet.

I would have preferred a different course, but I also would have preferred that Burke never signed Grabo to such a large contract to begin with. That would have prevented this whole situation. If Grabo had walked away from the Leafs offering say $4.5 million per season, I could have lived with that.

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