Michael Grabner hasn’t really come out of nowhere in the past few weeks, it just seems that way. After starting the season on the waiver wire, the 23-year old Islanders winger now leads all NHL rookies with 25 goals on the season and was recently named the NHL’s number one star for the past week.
The talent has always been there. Grabner was drafted by the Canucks in the first round (14th overall) of the 2006 draft and was always known for his blazing speed. He remained a top prospect in the Vancouver organization for three years but never seemed to become a consistent performer.
Assorted injuries to his shoulder and his ankle slowed his progress, but Vancouver GM Mike Gillis wanted to see more from Grabner.
“Michael’s speed is outstanding and he can finish,” Gillies told The Hockey News in 2009, “but to be a consistent player in the NHL, he needs to work on getting into position to score by playing in the tougher areas.”
Grabner finally played 20 games for the Canucks in 2009-10 but was unable to find a regular place in the lineup and was dealt to the Florida Panthers last summer. He didn’t even make the Panthers, a team desperate for scoring help, out of training camp and was placed on waivers. Isles’ GM Garth Snow claimed him just days before the season started.
Early in the season, Grabner had trouble finding a niche with the Isles. In his first 25 games of the season, the Austrian winger scored six goals and had just three assists.
Gradually, Grabner got more comfortable on Long Island and he started to get more scoring chances although at times he was still having trouble finding the back of the net. His confidence grew and suddenly, not only was Grabner getting opportunities to score, he was converting them into goals.
“I’m just trying to use my speed and get to open spaces and create chances,” Grabner said. “I can take more advantage [of my speed] than at the beginning of the year.”
Grabner’s game picked up enough that he was named to the All-Star Game skills competition and he won the fastest skater competition. That only served as a further boost to his confidence.
Now, Grabner was not only playing with speed, he was doing what was asked of him.
“He is getting to those areas he needs to score,” said Islanders Coach Jack Capuano. “He’s doing all the little things. He’s doing everything we ask all the guys to do. He’s having success and it starts right from practice. He is a player who definitely uses his speed to his advantage but the one thing about Grabner right now is he is going to those areas where you need to score. He’s getting the puck outside the dots, he’s dropping his left or his right shoulder and he’s taking it to the paint. That’s where you score goals.”
Grabner has also had help from his linemates and he is quick to credit them. He has played with Frans Nielsen almost all season. While Nielsen is not as fast as Grabner, he does have enough speed to effectively make plays with his Austrian winger. When Kyle Okposo finally returned from the injury list in late January, it added another element to Grabner’s line and the three have made a very effective unit.
Grabner has been quick to credit his linemates for helping take his game to the next level.
“My linemates are doing a good job of finding me and that helps a lot,” Grabner explained. “I have played with Fransie all year and obviously Okie coming back, he’s a big forward and a strong guy down low. I think we have some chemistry. If opponents give me too much respect, I can back them off and that gives Fransie and Okie some room to make plays.”
The results have been clear. Grabner has 16 goals and 23 points in his last 14 games and has scored at least one goal in his last six contests. On an Islanders team buried near the bottom of the league standings, Grabner is also an impressive plus-11 on the season.
“I’ve never seen a guy this hot,” Nielsen told Newsday after Tuesday night’s win in Ottawa. “I’m so happy for him. He competes so hard every night and he’s getting the results.”
This has been an impressive rookie year for Grabner: All-Star Game Skills Competition, NHL First Star of the Week, leading rookie goal scorer and Calder Trophy candidate. The Islanders hope Grabner is just getting started on the road to success.