Vancouver did not realize what he was capable of. Ditto for the Florida Panthers, as he failed to pass the test in training camp and quite honestly, the 23-year-old was unsure himself. Under his own admission, Michael Grabner deserved to be cut from a club that has gone one decade without a postseason berth and aims its advertising on their opponents – among other things that do not include the team itself. Whereas the dismissal from Vancouver was purely business because of their depth, being axed from Florida was almost insulting. Long Island didn’t seem to mind; they ran into problems on the injury front in September. So, against all odds, they made the 14th overall pick of the 2006 Entry Draft their property via the waiver wire.
"It's another chance for me," Grabner said. "I'm glad (the Islanders) took a chance on me. Hopefully I can pick up my game and help them out here."
With 11 points before the New Year, the Austrian’s resolution was to be a sophisticated hockey player. January was when everything started to shape itself out properly for Grabner, as he scored seven times and added three assists. Called to take part in the NHL SuperSkills competition on All-Star weekend, Taylor Hall stood as his ultimate competitor in the Fastest Skater event. Grabner’s time of 14.238 seconds bested the 14.715 Edmonton’s flashy freshman offered.
"I never practiced it or worked on it … I guess it's just natural," Grabner said. "It's not a skill everyone has, so I'm lucky, I guess. I was hoping I would be in the event. That's what my game is based on -- speed. So I was excited when heard I was in the event."
Truer words were never spoken. His high-quality finishing is stunning, but Grabner’s cunning movement begins it all. Few young players can match the speed and verve of the winger, who is a blur when he gets into his stride. In February, the former Manitoba Moose stand-out enjoyed a six-game goal-scoring streak in which he displayed his predatory instincts on ten occasions. Such an impressive rookie run equalled Evgeni Malkin’s own six-game stretch from 2007.
As much as any other squad, the Buffalo Sabres are fully aware of what Grabner can do after surrendering six goals to his stick in the four-game series. Their last sight of him, during the spectacular February, was the best example of Grabner’s all-around threat. A hat-trick turned out to be his end product, including the overtime tally, but it was the technique he used on each goal that became a sight to behold.
In the first period, there was Grabner, skating in on Ryan Miller and pulling the goaltender out of his crease. By the time Miller realized that a wrap-around was in store, Grabner was already halfway around the back of the net. Two periods later, the Austrian was in the mood to use his trustworthy shot with a curl-and-drag maneuver. No netminder rightly thinks they could have stopped that release and placement. Andrej Sekera fumbled a pass in overtime and with Grabner in the vicinity, the rest was history. Jumping all over the loose puck, he immediately escaped from the Sekera – who is an elegant skater himself – and pulled the trigger to end a wild game.
Speed, positioning and execution; Grabner, who may or may not be a nudist, displayed the three in opulence. Two days later, the Ottawa Senators were on a powerplay when they presented the league’s hottest forward with a break-away. Perhaps getting too cute, he fanned on his shot. With everyone back in the zone and Josh Bailey open by a country mile in the slot, there were two predictable choices: send the puck to Bailey or waste time in the corner. Grabner selected option three; dodging Erik Karlsson with a slick between-the-legs deke, he raced by Brian Elliott who was still behind the net from the original break-away, tucking it in beyond a sprawled Jason Spezza. Having the wherewithal and calm demeanour to accomplish what he did in ten seconds is simply incredible.
Adding to his Calder Trophy credentials, Grabner is staying red hot and together with Frans Nielsen, is one half of a menacing shorthanded duo. Whether it be a man down or at even-strength, – for whatever reason, he doesn’t see regular powerplay shifts – his name is synonymous with break-aways. Teammates have made humorous comments about his aptitude to flip pucks over defensemen and skate to them for a chance. Don’t put it past him, because it doesn’t sound so outlandish with that breakneck pace.
Born with natural gifts, Grabner is fulfilling the potential that was just waiting to be released for the world to see. But he must tread softly, because the next season will be the most testing of his life. From one Austrian to another, Thomas Vanek can be a source of knowledge to prepare his younger countryman for the task that lies ahead. The famous treble (43 goals, 41 assists and a plus-47 rating) that the 27-year-old put forth four years ago created huge obligations.
Like Grabner, Vanek is multi-talented, intelligent in reading situations and blessed with the tools to pull off the unbelievable. He went from a third line player earning less than $1 million, to an automatic leader because of the withdrawal of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. A seven-year, $50 million contract didn’t put his concerns at ease; a target of pleas was on his back. Stumbling badly in 2008, the Buffalo Sabres weren’t the same club that recently forged back-to-back Eastern Conference Final showings. According to fans, much of that was Vanek’s fault and despite his resurgent second half, they were appalled that his numbers dropped while his payment rose.
What they failed to understand was that he was now up against the elite defensemen because of his newly-found status as a primary scorer. Coaches wrote his name on their chalkboards, and he could not go under the radar as a forward who was safely tucked behind bigger names anymore. By surviving this test of attrition, Vanek is up for the major challenges and contributes in other dimensions by tracking back defensively.
That is the difference between the truly world-class forwards and the rest. Ilya Kovalchuk, Steven Stamkos, and Alexander Semin can all score goals for fun, but the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Martin St. Louis, and Mike Richards elevate themselves in these separate areas. If Vanek is not a world-class worker, he is well on his way at least.
Assuming that New York intends to secure their restricted free agents this season, – Grabner, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, and Blake Comeau – the core will be staying put. This means that he will likely still be a second line player, but what about his statistics? He’s already surpassed Vanek’s rookie goal total and equalled the 48 points that Buffalo’s talisman achieved. And three more goals will put Grabner as the third-highest scoring rookie in the post-lockout beside Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. The names he will pass are a who’s who of stars – Malkin, Bobby Ryan, Jonathan Toews, and Matt Duchene.
While Vanek received his first lengthy contract in his third campaign, Grabner will be a sophomore when he signs a multi-year deal worth millions. Players dread the sophomore year, as it has claimed victims aplenty and Grabner will try to handle those circumstances in addition to a contract extension. It is not shocking that he is receiving tremendous attention, but he is even being discussed more than John Tavares, the face of this Islanders franchise. That the club's last playoff cameo came in 2007 – fittingly shut down by the Buffalo Sabres in five games – won't help fans stay patient.
Indeed, Grabner’s renaissance has coincided with an improvement in results that has turned Long Island into a club that’s not to be taken lightly. At such a young age and still learning, this rookie sensation should be careful. With the supply of money and fame, comes the demand for production.
Michael Grabner has orchestrated an unforgettable six months, a span that will surely earn him vast amounts of digits in a contract renewal, the spotlight and the watchful eye of opponents who will recognize his gifts. Year No.2 is strenuous enough as it is, and Grabner’s task will resemble the one Vanek lived three seasons ago. Up to now, the Villach native has conducted himself remarkably.
Knowing is half the battle. Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.