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Cullen: Grabovski thrives in new role

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Scott Cullen
10/2/2013 2:24:54 PM
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With a new NHL season upon us, hopefully this will be a refreshed blog, with plans to post every day Monday-Friday, and include stats, lineup notes, injuries and other details from the night before.

I'm also going to try to use it as an outlet for responding to e-mail and Twitter questions, and -- please note -- I'll be doing chats on TSN.ca every Friday. So come with questions, whether they involve fantasy hockey or analytics and let's have a great season.

Today, it's Grabovski making a point, Eller in fine form, Trouba's instant impact and some recommendations for stats-oriented hockey fans.

1. After one game for the Washington Capitals, it turns out that Mikhail Grabovski is still a pretty decent hockey player. Grabovski scored three goals, added and assist while starting more of his shifts in the offensive zone, at least compared to last year, when his usage was drastically different in Toronto.

It's only one game, of course, but it's notable that Grabovski was among the Capitals' leaders in offensive zone starts and he's being used in an offensive capacity, which plays to his strengths.

This comes on the heels of Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle saying that he wants the Leafs to be more of a puck possession team this year, as though the decisions made in the summer (like buying out Grabovski and re-signing Tyler Bozak, for example) have no bearing on the team's ability to play an improved puck possession game. Even after being put into a defensive role last season, Grabovski's puck possession numbers have been better than those recorded by Bozak over the past three seasons.

Why compare Grabovski specifically to Bozak? Because the decision to buy out Grabovski only came into play because the Maple Leafs were choosing to re-sign Bozak, who was an unrestricted free agent in the summer. If they let Bozak leave, Grabovski would fit in an open scoring centre slot, not unlike the one he's found in Washington.

While Grabovski's buyout doesn't affect the Maple Leafs' cap, it still required more than $14-million and I don't care how much revenue pours in to MLSE, no one likes paying a player $14-million to play somewhere else, especially if turns out that he could be better than the guy they've agreed to pay $21-million over the next five seasons.

2. Now, in the interest of fair play, it should be pointed out that Bozak scored a shorthanded breakaway goal and took 27 (winning 15) of the Maple Leafs' 55 face-offs against Montreal Tuesday, his 21:13 of ice time leading all Maple Leafs forwards.

His possession numbers weren't ideal but, again, this is one game and Grabovski did much of his damage (two goals and one assist) on the power play, so his even-strength possession numbers weren't great either. At the same time, these comparisons are going to get made. When teams choose one player over another, especially at the same position, it's inevitable.

3. The Canadiens had a productive game out of what is ostensibly their third line -- C Lars Eller (2 G, 1 A, +2, 6 SOG) , LW Alex Galchenyuk (2 A) and RW Brendan Gallagher (1G). The oddity of it all is that Montreal didn't seem to use Galchenyuk and Gallagher as much as they could. The sophomore wingers played 13:23 and 11:26, respectively. Brandon Prust and Travis Moen both played more than 12 minutes against Toronto, so there was more of an emphasis on the physical game, it appears.

For Eller, whose 2013 season ended when he was knocked out by Senators D Eric Gryba, it was an ideal return to action from an individual standpoint, showing that he is strong, healthy and capable of being productive right away.

4. Jets rookie D Jacob Trouba announced his presence in his first NHL game. After one year at Michigan, the 9th overall pick from 2012 stepped into the Jets lineup, played 25:02 to lead both teams, and scored his first NHL goal along with an assist. If he's a top four (or even top pair) defenceman right out of the gate -- he was paired with Zach Bogosian -- then Trouba can be a difference-maker for the Jets.

5. Blackhawks sophomore LW Brandon Saad (1 G, 2 A, +2) opened the season on Chicago's third line, with Andrew Shaw and Jimmy Hayes, but was still plenty productive. Bryan Bickell, who has the top line left wing spot, alongside Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, had one shot on goal in 15:05.

6. Capitals RW Alex Ovechkin (1 G, 1 A, -2, 9 SOG) had a strong opening game. In 126 games over the previous two seasons, he'd registered nine shots or more twice, so doing it in Chicago, against the Blackhawks, seems like a decent initial indication that he's on his game.

7. Oilers LW, er, C Taylor Hall played 23:30 against Winnipeg, a threshold he'd crossed twice in 171 previous NHL games. Playing primarily with Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky, they took puck possession lumps against the Jets.

8. We're going to wrap up today's blog with a few recommendations. First, for anyone interested in hockey's advanced stats or simply taking a different look at the game, this season's Hockey Prospectus is a must-read. I wrote the Foreword to the HP annual a couple of years ago, emphasizing that hockey analytics should be a growth industry, and appreciate the work that some very smart people put into the analysis every year.

I've been fortunate enough to meet some of them at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, including editor Timo Seppa and Brian Macdonald. I've worked on a few things with Rob Vollman (who published his own, also recommended, Hockey Abstract this summer too) and have chatted with a few more on Twitter, including prospect ace Corey Pronman and I appreciate people challenging the status quo when it comes to player and team analysis. It's good stuff.

9. Not to be confused with TSN's Fantasy Hockey League Manager (which is also great!), I've started playing Franchise Hockey Manager, a hockey simulator presented by OOTP, makers of Out of the Park Baseball. I've played their baseball game and enjoyed it, but was anxious for their release of the hockey product.

I spent way too much time in my youth playing Hockey League Simulator II and loved the idea of picking my teams, setting lines, making trades etc -- this was really before fantasy hockey had taken hold online -- and you could play through a season in a night. Maybe a long night, but it could be done.

The amount of detail involved is great -- they have rosters and prospects for all NHL teams, but also for junior and European leagues -- and it's still fun to mix and match line combinations. If you're into that kind of stat-nerdy thing, give it a look.

10. Finally, research is the heart of this job. I watch and I listen and I read and I dig for more and there are many websites that I turn to in order to have a handle on what's happening in the NHL. These are some that I will link to a lot throughout the season:
www.behindthenet.ca 
www.capgeek.com
www.leftwinglock.com 
www.hockey-reference.com
stats.hockeyanalysis.com
www.extraskater.com
www.hockeyfights.com
www.hockeydb.com

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Mikhail Grabovski (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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