TORONTO - It was a gamble and Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis knew it.
"If we weren't able to get Bozak signed or if Clarkson didn't sign then I would've had a lot of cap space with no players," Nonis told the Leaf Report. "So it was definitely a gamble and we weighed that against keeping him and playing him."
Ultimately, Nonis and his management team opted to exercise their second compliance buyout on Mikhail Grabovski this past summer, ridding themselves of the enigmatic centreman after five years in Toronto. After much debate, they determined that the cap space freed up by his dismissal was just too enticing to pass up; that the player's fit on the roster just wasn't there.
The 29-year-old, who returns to the Air Canada Centre as a member of the Washington Capitals on Saturday evening, still had four years remaining on a contract that ate up $5.5 million in cap space annually.
"It wasn't a decision we made just overnight," Nonis said. "We thought long and hard about it and decided to roll the dice with the cap space and see if we could relocate it effectively."
These were nervous times for Nonis. Though he had just acquired 27-year-old Dave Bolland from the Chicago Blackhawks, he had no guarantees that Tyler Bozak would re-sign in Toronto nor whether David Clarkson, their top free agent target, would take their bait and become a Leaf.
"We didn't know when we did it that we'd be successful in getting some players signed," Nonis said.
Also due to be signed were restricted free agents Jonathan Bernier, Carl Gunnarsson, Nazem Kadri, Mark Fraser and Cody Franson.
Cap space, predictably, (with the upper-limit dropping to $64.3 million) was going to be at a premium.
"We looked at a number of scenarios, including keeping him," Nonis said of Grabovski, who signed for one year in Washington at $3 million. "I said at the time, I think Grabo, wherever he ends up, was going to have a positive impact. He's a good player and I believe that. But for us we felt we needed to regain that cap space to make some other moves moving forward."
A major part of the equation was also the player's fit within the roster.
Never coming to grips with the role he was required to play in Toronto last season, Grabovski endured the worst season of his career in 2013. He finished with nine goals and 16 points in 48 games, completely off-kilter in the defensive role head coach Randy Carlyle had pegged him to fill.
Afforded similar minutes under Adam Oates in Washington, albeit with a more offensive lean, Grabovski has already produced seven goals and 19 points this season.
"Again, the notion that there wasn't ice-time available for him or opportunity last year, that's just false," Nonis said of Grabovski, who averaged nearly 16 minutes last season, his lowest as a Leaf. "I think it was more a situation where the fit just wasn't right. And it wasn't his fault. I don't think he ever shortchanged us on effort or being prepared or professionalism or any of those things. There just didn't seem to be a fit. And so to have that much cap space tied up with a player that wasn't fitting with us - it doesn't mean he's not going to fit with other teams, obviously he is - but that's what led to the decision to buy him out."
Grabovski made no secret of his disdain for Carlyle and the role he was dealt in his final season as a Leaf. He believed his value came from producing offence - he scored 20 goals three times - and could not comprehend why that opportunity wasn't being afforded him as it had been previously under Ron Wilson.
"I think too much is made about the coach being the issue with Grabo," Nonis said.
"Look at Grabo's ice-time and look at his opportunity and look at his performance and I think Grabo would tell you that he didn't have a great year. Whether it was just because he didn't feel like he was being used correctly or what it might be, but I think it's easy to point the finger at the coach and say well it's his fault. I don't think that's fair. There's a lot of things that went into his season last year and I think just saying it was all the coach is unfair."
The team's dynamic at centre ice almost dictated the terms for Carlyle.
With Kadri making the team out of training camp when the lockout wrapped last January and Bozak already lined up as the team's top centre - the better fit for Phil Kessel in the team's opinion - there was nowhere else to put Grabovski but in the checking role he was assigned.
Add Bolland into the mix from Chicago this summer - an ideal candidate to fill the role Grabovski griped under - and the stage was set for change in early July.
Nonis, admittedly, could have waited until the summer of 2014 to exercise the buyout - the final year to do so under terms of the new CBA - but risked another poor season in doing so.
"From a manager's point we looked at it and said 'Is this the best thing to do for us to rehabilitate him, so to speak, and get him back to playing where we needed him to play or to buy him out and create the cap space'.
"That was the decision."