…He’s an improvement. A big one.
They’re both presumptive second-line centers in UFA status, but George McPhee upgraded big-time when he signed Mikhail Grabovski to take over Mike Ribeiro‘s spot. “Grabovski is not as good as Ribeiro as a point-producer or set-up man for his wingers”, said Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal, “but he is a better two-way player.” That’s technically correct, but it overestimates Mike Ribeiro’s impact on production and underestimates how Grabovski makes his teammates better.
Because that’s what matters. A good linemate, particularly a good center, relieves pressure from his team’s zone and drives the pucks towards the opponent’s net (i.e. puck possession or “tilting the ice”). A good linemate also tries to help his line score more goals than they would without him.
So I’ll look at both possession and goals. I went to stats.hockeyanalysis.com and grabbed last season’s even-strength data for both players. I used a WOWY (with or without you) comparison to establish how much better or worse teammates did when they played at the same time as Ribs and Grabo. I excluded goalies and any teammates who shared the ice with Grabo or Ribs for less than twenty minutes. I did a really simple calculation: How many teammates did better with each player? How many did worse?
Teammates By Possession
This tables displays the number of teammates who saw a better or worse share of shot attempts (Corsi For %) when sharing the ice with the player.
As measured by shot attempts, nearly everyone Ribeiro played with did worse when they were together, as an average of 4.74% of shot attempts went in the wrong direction. The four players who got better were Troy Brouwer, John Erskine, Jack Hillen, and Martin Erat. Grabovski, meanwhile, improved the ice tilt for 12 of teammates by an average of 2.31%– and that was despite some pretty crummy circumstances, which I’ll explain below.
If possession were truly everything, everyone would just acknowledge that Grabo is a stud. Then he’d never have been bought out by Toronto, and the Caps wouldn’t have been able to gobble him up at a discount. So we should be grateful that Toronto deployed Grabovski in his own zone a ton and didn’t account for the miserable luck he suffered there.
Teammates By Goals
This tables displays the number of teammates who saw better or worse Goal % when sharing the ice with the player.
It’s nearly a reversal of the first table, which seems odd at first, but there are reasons to consider.
First, Grabovski was a de facto grinder in Toronto last season, where he shared the ice with some of the Leafs’ least successful shooters. When on the ice with Grabo at 5v5, Toronto scored on 8.45% of their shots. Compare that to Ribeiro’s above-average 9.03%.
Second, goalies behind Grabovski saved less than goalies behind Ribeiro. Toronto’s save percentage while Grabovski was on ice was .904. Ribeiro was treated to a Lundqvistian .922 in the same circumstances.
There’s no reason to think that either of those percentages will persist next year.
(Not to mention: Grabovski took many more non-neutral faceoffs in his own zone than Ribeiro: 36.7% to 50.8%. Grabo was deployed as a defensive fourth liner with vastly fewer opportunities to score.)
So GMGM had to choose between a terrific player who looked bad last season and got bought out by his team– and a mediocre player who looked good last year and earned a king’s ransom in free agency.
The Caps have a better forward in Mikhail Grabovski at a better price. Unlike Randy Carlyle, Adam Oates is likely to play Grabovski in the offensive zone as a real second-line center. Grabo will turn the Caps’ second line into a real threat for the first time in years, and he will improve the game of pretty much everyone lucky to share the ice with him. The presence of a viable second line center (and the sudden bounty of three terrific centers on the depth chart) gives Oates all kinds of flexibility in deployment and match-ups — and it gives George McPhee latitude to make more roster moves to improve the team with increased specificity.
Mike Ribeiro is a fine player, but he’s in decline. He did best last year on the power play, where he’s least likely to sustain that performance. He committed more penalties than he drew. And worst of all: he didn’t create shot attempts. Grabovski is an improvement in all respects at 60% the cost.
So next time someone calls Grabo a replacement, assume they are referring to the seminal 80s rock band and consider it a compliment.
And now, because the Internet is great, here is video of every Grabo goal from 2011-12.