Where would the Rangers be without Michael Grabner? Surely you’ve heard that question before.
The question is unanswerable because Grabner’s impact is immeasurable.
But suffice it to say that Grabner is at least in the conversation for team MVP, perhaps for the Steven McDonald Extra Effort award, and, if such a trophy existed, the Free Agency Bargain of the Year.
When Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton went shopping last summer, with limited salary cap space, the idea was to give coach Alain Vigneault more speed and better penalty killers. The Rangers sorely missed cap casualty Carl Hagelin, who had been traded the summer before and ended up with a Stanley Cup ring in Pittsburgh.
Gorton added loads of speed and penalty-killing types, but none who’ve had the impact of Grabner. It didn’t hurt that Rangers associated head coach Scott Arniel had coached Grabner in Manitoba, which reached the Calder Cup (AHL) final in 2008-09, and Vigneault coached him in 2009-10 in Vancouver.
Gorton got Grabner, 29, for two years and a very friendly $1.65 million cap hit.
So here he sits, leading the Rangers with 22 goals, leading the entire NHL with 20 even-strength goals and helping the Rangers’ penalty kill get better after an awful 2015-16 season in that department. He’s striking fear into opponents with his speed, much the way Hagelin did.
“I think it goes back to the penalty kill,” Grabner said. “I try to take away time and space. I’m not the biggest hitter in the league. [There are] always the guy trying to get under the guys’ skin or break up plays with hits. I’m trying to do it more from speed and getting a stick in the lane and breaking up plays.”
His teammates have noticed the impact Grabner’s had, beyond scoring.
“I think, similar to Hags, as a [defenseman] you have to respect that speed and sometimes you have to back off a little bit more than you want to,” Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. “With Grabs, he reads the plays really well. If you look at all his breakaways, a lot of times it’s when he breaks up a play and he just surprises guys. And then he’s off. It’s been great to watch him play. He really uses his speed in a great way. He’s a strong player too. He’s been good for us.”
MSG Network’s Steve Valiquette said seven of Grabner’s goals have come on breakaways, which is an absurd number. He seems to get one or two breakaways a game.
While the common belief is that the scoring stat is a complete aberration, it’s not entirely accurate. Yes, Grabner only had one big offensive year in the NHL — he scored 34 goals with the Islanders in 2010-11. — but he has always scored goals, well, until last season in Toronto.
Grabner had 32 goals in a 23-game season in an under-20 league in his native Austria, scored 36 and 39 in consecutive seasons with Spokane in the WHL and tallied 22 and 30 in his two full seasons with Manitoba. He had 20 the year after his 34 with the Islanders, then 16 in 45 games the lockout year (2013), before scoring eight in just 34 games in ’14-15 with the Isles.
In his only season in Toronto, where coach Mike Babcock still sings his praises, Grabner ran into some back luck, scoring just eight times last year. That’s why the price was right.
“I think it’s getting better chances, getting [into] better scoring position than I was in in past years, where you may be shooting pucks from the outside more,” Grabner explained. “Now I’m getting better looks at the net. Playing with [Kevin] Hayes and [J.T.] Miller has been great for me. They’re great players, so I just try to get open, find some space and they’re finding me.
“Yeah, I always liked scoring goals. That’s my favorite part. Sometimes you get put in different roles and I’ve just tried to play the roles the past couple of years. But even in Toronto last year, Mike Babcock wanted me to go out there and create some offense and that’s what I like to do. That’s what got me in this league, too. I don’t mind playing penalty kill. I like to frustrate the other guys, the top guys and that’s a big part of today’s game.”
Vigneault, whose system requires speed and skill and the ability to attack after defending, knows Grabner’s value to the team.
“I think he’s always [in] shooting positions,” Vigneault said. “If you look at his past, his career, he’s always the type of player because of his speed, because of his stick, that gets one or two Grade A looks a game, and this year he’s finishing. There’s no doubt that we want him to continue to get those looks. He’s a very effective player for us.”
“The results speak for themselves,” Rangers alternate captain Marc Staal added. “The amount of goals he’s scored for us in tight games, big games. I think he adds the speed element to our game. He puts defensemen on their heels and makes them aware of when he’s on the ice. And then he’s been a huge asset on our penalty killing. He’s been a big part of that and been dangerous on that. Really, in every part of our game out there, he’s made an impact.”
Grabner has fit in perfectly – he said about his daily commutes to practices and games with Miller and Nick Holden. “You could probably film our car rides and you would have a good TV series. … a lot of jokes,” he said.
The goals started coming early and often — he’s had two hat tricks — and haven’t stopped.
“This year, it’s just getting chances from the start and they started going in,” Grabner said. “So it’s easy to build off stuff like this when you get confidence and the puck’s going in. I think everyone in the league will tell you the same thing – when the puck’s going in, it’s just feeling good. You’re not thinking about anything compared to when you’re not scoring, you’re trying to over-think when you have a chance or take too much time or shoot it too quickly when you have more time.”
“So it’s just a funny game sometimes.”