By Chris Boyle
When NHL teams pick through the discount bin during the offseason, they usually get the best bargains with players that are coming off an injury-plagued period or players who suffered through a prolonged shooting slump. When you can combine both those factors, it can present the opportunity for a low risk/high reward scenario.
Although Michael Grabner’s goal totals were anemic during his one-season stop over in Toronto, many of the things that made him a consistent 20-goal threat were still there. The incredible speed that allows him to enter the offensive zone with control hadn’t abandoned him after multiple injury plagued seasons.
What had disappeared was the shot volume that had defined the early portion of his career. Through the 2013-14 season, Grabner averaged 2.5 shots per game, a number that plummeted to 1.5 per game as a Maple Leaf last season. This is an issue for a player like Grabner. Even though he is a career 12-percent shooter, he scores most of his goals through higher quality shots.
Over the last two seasons, he was a 6-percent shooter on clear-sighted looks. Grabner was still producing an expected shooting percentage of 11.6 percent because of his refusal to volume shoot from the exterior and his ability to produce quality shots based on superior location. When you combine a lack of volume and place the onus on Grabner to beat the goaltender on deception and release alone, there were some struggles to finish with Toronto last season.
But if we view the early portion of his Rangers career, we can see his regression is back up.
Since he arrived in New York, Grabner has spent the majority of his time on an exploitation line with Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller. The trio has been absolutely dominating those minutes at almost a 60-percent expected goal differential. What both of those players do is dominate the slot line and create high-leverage opportunities for their linemate.
In only 17 games, Grabner’s shot volume is up and he has already produced 11 shots with pre-shot movement, half of the 22 he managed during 80 games with the Maple Leafs last season. He already has four breakaways, a pace that would double his 10 from a year ago.
This explosion of opportunities has allowed Grabner to slowly push his shooting percentage back to a normal range, offsetting his 2015-16 season.
The big question is this: Is his production sustainable? And the answer to that is: Yes! It is sustainable for him to produce 2.4 shots per game and finish at a reasonable 12 percent (both his career rates) for the remainder of the season if he continues to play with Miller and Hayes. With those variables intact, 25-30 goals is a reasonable expectation. What doesn’t seem sustainable or reasonable is shooting 25 percent over 65 more games when you are producing opportunities with an expected shooting percentage of 16 percent.
Breaking down small sample production always creates inexplicable spikes, but the context of the larger sample always provides better clarity. Grabner is enjoying his greatest run of success since his rookie explosion, but if we look at his career shot rate and finishing percentage, it makes sense to view this as a course correction away from his down 80-game sample of a year ago.
A course correction that the Rangers were wise to gamble on last summer.