By: Steve L.
Michael Grabner got out of the gate to a good start last year, putting up two goals in the season opener. Unfortunately, the former 34 goal scorer then proceeded to go 31 games without a goal. This caused many to suspect that his early goal scoring prowess was a fluke. However, a quick look at his career trajectory and his performance towards the end of the season suggests that the slump was a temporary an unusual loss of confidence from which he has recovered.
But even if he wasn’t scoring, he has the ability to disrupt a game like no other middle-six forward in the NHL. Grabner is the type of wildcard that every team wishes they had up their sleeve. While the Islanders currently have a surplus of forwards, it would be foolish to part with such a special player.
First, let’s put to bed any notion that Grabner’s 2010 rookie campaign was a fluke. While his goal output declined in 2011, he did score 20 goals in his second full season. His shot total dropped of significantly in 2011, as did his shooting percentage, but his shooting percentage rebounded to 14.8 percent (almost identical to 2010) and he scored at a 29 goal pace in his lockout shortened third season. Three 20+ goal seasons isn’t a fluke.
Now let’s look at this past season. Over the entire season, Grabner fell just below T.J. Oshie at 0.64 goals per 60 minutes, good for 151st overall. Not great, but not awful. However, between December 20th – the end of The Slump ™ – and April 5th, Grabner scored at a 1.39 clip. Had he played at that pace all season long he’d have finished third in the league after Corey Perry and Max Pacioretti and just above Alexander Steen. While 32 games is a small sample size, that combined with leading the Olympics in goals (including a hat trick against Tukka Rask and the suffocating Finnish defense) suggests that he’s got his goal scoring touch back. Indeed, he was on 25 goal per year pace during that period. That’s pretty good for a guy playing third line minutes – especially considering all of his goals were either even strength or shorthanded.
The numbers suggest that Grabner, at 26, still has the potential to put up 20-30 goals per season. That is very good. Indeed, one might argue that it would make sense to give him first line minutes based on his goals per 60 minute rate. However, that would mitigate his greatest strength: his ability to play against other teams’ top offensive units.
Grabner is a good possession player. Indeed, his corsi for percentage has improved each season from 46.9 as a rookie to 50.8 last year. His corsi relative increased from -0.7 to +2.2. His defensive zone starts have consistently outnumbered his offensive zone starts, which makes his corsi stats – not to mention his goal scoring stats – more impressive. He also consistently draws more penalties than he takes (+8 last year). He faced the fourth highest quality of competition among Islanders forwards because he is the type of player that can handle élite offenses (particularly when paired with Frans Nielsen).
Grabner’s skills are most visibly displayed on the penalty kill. His lightning speed allows him to give opposing defenses some space and dart towards the puck if one makes an unwise pass. Indeed, he was often ridiculed during the 31 game slump for getting frequent breakways and failing to convert. While it obviously would have been nice if he was scoring, the ability to hem in opposing defensemen and drive the puck all the way to the net is extremely valuable. Grabner seriously constrains opposing powerplay quarterbacks. While it might be tempting to point out how poor the Islanders penalty kill was last year, that was hardly Grabner’s fault. With improved goaltending and defense, Grabner will have the ability to prove himself as one of the league’s elite penalty killers. That is a very undervalued skill.
In short, Michael Grabner is a very good player. I’d argue élite in his own unique way. Even when he’s not scoring, everyone is aware that he is on the ice. He’s like a hurricane. Everyone constantly needs to be on guard for the ensuing chaos if he approaches with speed.
He’s a game changer.
I hope to be wearing his shirt yet again on opening night at the Coliseum.