grabovski and burmistrov
The underuse of Mikhail Grabovski has been fairly well-documented on the blogosphere over the last little while. Despite being an effective two-way centre in the past, Grabovski has been relegated to third line minutes over the last two weeks. He bottomed out at 12:23 against the Winnipeg Jets on March 12, and was held out of a 10-round shootout by coach Randy Carlyle in the rematch Saturday night.

This is the same Mikhail Grabovski who has shown these sorts of hands in the past:

The underuse of Grabovski is puzzling, particularly since at even strength. Carlyle’s main complaint about Grabovski is that he doesn’t produce much, telling reporters last week that “We’d like to see the Grabovski-[Nikolai] Kulemin line score more” and admitting that “there is a little leeway given them” due to the fact that those two forwards play some of the toughest competition in the NHL, mostly in a defensive role.

Despite this, Grabovski is just one point at even strength behind Tyler Bozak, a mis-cast, misfit centreman who drew the long straw three years ago and has spent much of his NHL career alongside Phil Kessel. That, either, makes little sense, and in the midst of a five-game losing streak, Carlyle has done a lot to try and rejuvenate his offence. His changes have involved splitting the Grabovski-Kulemin pairing and placing noted face-puncher Colton Orr on a line with sophomore sensation Nazem Kadri. Everything, it seems, but breaking up the Bozak-Kessel combination along with winger James van Riemsdyk, despite the fact his two best offensive players are frequently hemmed in their own end with a centreman who can do little more than win draws.

That’s just exposition—there’s another centreman on a Canadian team who, though he is an effective hockey player, does not see the ice time he is due thanks to an overbearing coach. Alexander Burmistrov, unlike Grabovski, was drafted with a high draft pedigree being selected 8th overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2011 after scoring 65 points in 62 games with the Barrie Colts of the OHL. He played his 18-year old season in the NHL and his 19-year old season as a very effective two-way player.

So here’s the thing with Burmistrov… he doesn’t get any minutes. Burmistrov missed four consecutive games beginning with the Jets win over the Maple Leafs on Tuesday. He sat out for a 3-1 win against the Rangers, the Saturday shootout against Toronto and, most recently, a 4-1 loss on Sunday to Ottawa. With the team winning, you’d think it’s a good idea for Noel to keep going with a winning roster, but since an injury forced fourth line centreman and faceoff specialist Jim Slater out of the lineup, you’d want a player with good two-way pedigree like Slater filling in the minutes. Instead, Noel has been using Eric Tangradi, Chris Thorburn and Patrice Cormier. The three played a combined 12:07 Sunday and neither player took a face-off.

From earlier this week, a column by Ed Tait in the Winnipeg Free Press quoted his reason for sitting out Burmistrov is “just a coach’s decision… which is one I don’t want to share with you.” Burmistrov told reporters that Noel has not given him anything specific to work on to get back into the lineup.

Among Winnipeg forwards headed into Sunday’s game, Burmistrov was fourth in overall on-ice shot differential: per 60 minutes of play, the Jets out-shoot the opposition by 3.25 with Burmistrov on the ice. It’s not like he’s playing real easy minutes, either. His offensive zone start rate is 4th on the Jets and his Quality of Competition measure is 7th, out of 12 common forwards, and his underlying numbers look to be superior to those of Tangradi and Thorburn, as well as Olli Jokinen, a player who has performed worse in easier competition. That is quite a shock, since Jokinen is a pretty consistent hockey player and gets to centre Evander Kane and Antti Miettinen on the second line. Burmistrov doesn’t get to. A season ago, Burmistrov was fifth out of 11 common forwards in on-ice shot differential.

User ‘truck’ broke down a lot more numbers over at SBN’s Arctic Ice Hockey. These sorts of numbers don’t tell us that Burmistrov is spending too much time playing an East-West game as opposed to a North-South game, whether he finishes his check or whether he slacks off at practice. What the numbers do tell us is that Winnipeg’s players are generally better off when they’re playing with Burmistrov on the ice. That is, wherever Claude Noel has found a fault, he’s missing the bigger picture.

Noel to me seems like a pretty sharp guy and Winnipeg is a better team than a lot of people give them credit for—they are first in the Southeast Division, are a close to par puck-possession club and he’s got these results with players who don’t exert superstardom. I subscribe to the Drew Magary school of coaching analysis, that some coaches excel at certain things and are terrible at others. With Slater in the lineup, Noel has shown he can roll out a trustworthy centreman in soft defensive minutes, can combat top lines with his power line which leaves Olli Jokinen and Kyle Wellwood in position to take on much easier competition than they’d otherwise see. Few coaches are good at getting good production out of all of their centremen in dedicated roles. His treatment of Burmistrov to me seems out of character.

With Slater out of the lineup, it seems to me that in back-to-back situations you could use a fourth line that you actually play. Burmistrov, admittedly, doesn’t fit the classic mould of a fourth liner. He’s smallish and skillful, not a big bruiser who was suspended multiple times in junior and is more likely to raise his hands when finishing his check than by raising his hands after a goal. Still, the numbers don’t lie, and Winnipeg is a better team with Burmistrov on the ice.

Swap Cormier for Burmistrov and swap Bozak for Grabovski, and the entertainment value of the NHL is bettered, as is the quality of the Jets and the Leafs. It would be nice to know either coach’s rationale for holding either player back.

Comments (12)

  1. Love these posts, Cam.

    As a habs fan I can’t help but cringe at the thought of giving Grabo away for so little. It seems like this player is constantly held back by coaches who ignore the fact that hockey is a goal scoring contest. Okay, maybe he wasn’t great while he was here, but like you point out, take away the foreign name and I’m sure the patience for him would have lasted a few seasons longer. It’s a shame for Leafs fans because however bad TO possession numbers are, the players are being misused. How much better could the Leafs be if Carlyle took into account the insight you’re giving here?

    Anyway, good post. It’s good to write about and expose these irrational figures in our sport. I feel a stronger allegiance to a thinking Leaf fan than I do to an unthinking Habs fan who still believes that Grabovski blows and Prust is our saviour.

  2. My opinion of Burmistrov was tainted by my first game at the MTS centre. The Jets had a delayed powerplay, and spent 30 seconds cycling in neutral ice getting a fresh line on the ice. Then, Alex gets the puck and does a soft dump in to Carolina’s defence, ending the 6 on 5. You could see players shaking their heads and I would be annoyed if a rec league player did that.
    He seems like a frustrating player to play with or coach, when NHL teams are obsessed with systems. He improvises and cuts side to side with the puck, throwing off the timing of wingers. Your numbers say he gets results, but for control freak coaches, they just see him doing things “wrong”.

    • +1 x 1,000,000
      You can tell when someone hasn’t played systematic hockey before, these types of things that have no stats applied to them seem to always befuddle bloggers.

      • @Brent
        Thank you for adding an anecdote against the arguments in Cam’s article. Yes the numbers are strongly in favor of playing these two, but ….nationalism and prejudice? Com’on Cam. I hope the title of this article isn’t a true reflection of your feelings because calling a professional out as prejudice is quite incendiary. I find this article well researched but it’s tone puts me off.

  3. these coaches are racist… and have watched too many coaches corners.. if they cant pronounce the names, they dont play

  4. Nice article. Grabovski is definitely underrated. What is the coach thinking? 10 players in a shoot out and none are Grabovski? Colton Orr playing with Kadri? Carlyle is nuts!

  5. Cool you were able to find a photo of them both on the ice, and not riding the pine!

  6. Cam, we can focus the issue if we get the facts right about Grabbo’s “underuse?” That is, we need to sharpen it from the idea that “he’s getting fewer minutes” to “he’s being used wrongly.”

    1. His ES TOI is almost exactly what it’s been in recent years, 15:01 versus 15:13 and 15:13 and 14:08. So, Carlyle is not holding him off the ice in ES situations.

    2. And no, he hasn’t received less TOI in recent games – he’s had 5 games over 17:00 minutes in the last 10.

    3. Where his TOI has declined compared to recent years is on special teams. On the PK, for instance, two years ago he got 1:00 of TOI per game. However, he wasn’t very good on the PK last year, giving up 5 goals in just 21 minutes. In addition, this year we have Jay McClement, who is great on the PK. In addition, with Grabbos’ hard minutes, not running him out on the PK would actually best be seen as doing him a favour.

    4. Where the difficulty arises is on the PP, where his time has fallen 0:25 seconds form last year, and 1:28/night from two years ago.

    5. Does this mean Carlyle is insane? Mmmm, not sure. See, the same people who want more PP time for Grabbo also want more for… this new kid… Kadri. And it’s very difficult to give time to both, unless you chop out Bozak’s time. Which would make sense, except that Bozak has 5 PP points in 91 minutes, versus Grabbos’ 2 in 48 minutes. Which actually… cringe… means Bozak is playing better on the PP than Grabbo.

    Conclusion on Grabbo’s TOI? It’s not been cut much. And where it has, on special teams, it makes great sense on the PK, and middling-to-fair sense on the PK.

    If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s about the astonishingly hard QComps and ZoneStarts that Carlyle gives Grabbo. Except that, he gives the same or even harder situations to… Kulemin, Dion, Holzer, McClement and Kostka when he was paired with Dion.

    So the real issue is CARLYLE’S LINE-MATCHING & USAGE OF GRABBO IN THAT ROLE. It’s not amount of ice-time.

  7. Also, while I’m a big-time Grabbo lover, a lot of his fellow fans throw a certain “fact” that they otherwise love straight out of the window when it comes to him. That is, I often see them quoting figures about a player’s age, and how his scoring totals tend to peak at 23-24-25, and thence, decline.

    Our beloved Grabovski is 29. Twenty-nine.

    His highest ever point total was 58.

    Perhaps he would soar if given the !c role with Kessel and Lupul/JVR, along with more PP time.


    But Grabbo has never been a playmaking, assist-making machine. Never. His best 4 seasons were all between 25 and 28 assists, and he had good wingers, in MacArthur and Kulemin, and a fair amount of PP ice-time as well.

    So where are we? YES, I would argue he’s better than Bozak, and would thus love to see him move up to 1C. But we probably should recognize that neither of the two coaches – not just Carlyle – found this to be a good fit.

    And… he’s 29.

    So. What role do we want for him? Move Kadri to 1C, and let Grabbo play 2C and give him better zone starts and easier competition? Ok, maybe.

    But that means someone has to handle tougher comp and more Dzone starts. Who? Kadri – while paired with Kessel and Lupul/JVR? Ouch. A 4th line?

    The fit isn’t easy.

    Which means, Carlyle faces a dilemma. And while I don’t think he’s handling it well, he shouldn’t be criticized on the basis of “every single thing you do, or I think you do, is anti-Grabbo.”

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