By Jeff Capellini
NEW YORK (WFAN/CBSNewYork) — The last Islander to do what Michael Grabner is in the process of doing is in the Hockey Hall of Fame and is basically considered one of the greatest pure goal scorers in the history of the game.
I’m not saying Grabner is the next Mike Bossy, but it’s hard to discount what the former 2006 first-round pick has done over the last month.
Basically stolen from the Florida Panthers during training camp by GM Garth Snow, Grabner has emerged as the feel-good story on Long Island this season. And trust me when I say when the Islanders have something worth bragging about it’s worth all the attention it receives. It just doesn’t happen all that often.
Since mid-January no player in the NHL has more goals than Grabner’s 10. He has registered 15 of his 27 points in the last 13 games. While not necessarily eye-popping statistics, those numbers might as well be double because of the team he plays for. The Islanders, as we all know, have struggled to score goals this season, sitting third from the bottom in the NHL with only 135 in 54 games — or 2.5 per contest.
And as they once again struggle to follow their GPS toward mediocrity, the Isles can at least take solace in the fact that they do indeed have some talent worth paying attention to. I realize it’s the same old song and dance with this franchise year in and year out. At this point we all know far too well the definition of rebuilding. The Islanders have basically been in the process of doing just that for years, with often mixed reviews of talent that is seemingly always almost ready to make that next step toward getting this franchise back into the playoffs for the first time since they were taken out in the first round in five games by Buffalo back in 2006-07.
But for all the draft picks the Isles have amassed over the last few years, Snow has had more success finding players with serious upside by picking up his phone. The NHL community likes to kill Garth. People poke fun at his resume as the backup goalie-turned GM. They hammer away at him for a lot of things — some warranted, some absolutely not warranted.
But facts are facts: as a shrewed executive, something he has had no choice but to be over the last few years due to the team’s dire finanical situation caused mostly by the lack of a new arena, Snow has pulled off some very good moves. Look no further than the signing of Matt Moulson out of relative obscurity last offseason and the pick-up of Grabner off waivers just prior to the start of this season.
They each have 19 goals this season, the same amount as John Tavares, the first overall pick in 2009.
For his part, Grabner has always been touted for his blazing speed and deft hands, but for whatever reason — be it maturity, a lack of size or an at-the-time mediocre at best hockey IQ — he struggled to convince anyone in Vancouver, the organization that took him No. 14 overall in 2006, that his 11 points in 20 games last season were worth a more advanced role. The Canucks shipped him to Florida, where the Panthers were equally unimpressed during training camp.
Then Snow swooped in and saw something worth taking a chance over.
Grabner’s transformation into a player worth the attention he’s currently receiving didn’t happen overnight on the Island. He scored just nine goals in his first 38 games as he shifted from line to line trying to find himself. At just 170 pounds it was becoming apparent he didn’t have the size to bang along the boards or in the corners and wasn’t nearly physical enough to cause havoc near the crease.
No, Grabner’s game is a speed game — as everyone who went to the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C., found out during the NHL Skills Competition. The Isles’ lone representative in the All-Star Weekend festivities, Grabner put on a show in the fastest skater competition, winning the title wth ease.
Maybe that performance was his true coming out party. Grabner scored six goals in the final seven games leading up to the break, skated away from everyone in Raleigh and hasn’t looked back since.
So with 28 games left before the Isles once again refine their golf swings, Grabner has a chance to do something no Islanders rookie has done since Bossy — score more than 25 goals. In 1977-78 Bossy exploded onto the NHL scene with a Calder Trophy-winning 53-goal campaign. Grabner isn’t Bossy (nor Tavares, who scored 24 last season as a rookie), obviously, but he has captivated a fan base in dire need of something to get excited about.
Grabner is currently third in NHL rookie goal scoring, one behind Carolina’s Jeff Skinner and five back of San Jose’s Logan Couture. Wouldn’t it be something if Grabner somehow continued his hot play and became a more serious contender for the Calder?
The Islanders sorely need something to rally around. They are currently on their fifth goaltender, didn’t send one player to the actual All-Star game and are a franchise that is generally viewed as an NHL laughingstock, something that embarrasses the heck out of every last one of their supporters. Grabner can give them a skate to stand on and continue to further the belief that this team does have the potential to be a playoff team sooner rather than later.
And what of Snow, the GM who has continuously been left out to dry financially with a shoe-string budget? Here’s a man who did the absolute right thing by claiming the unprofessional Evgeni Nabokov off waivers only to see the world-class goaltender thumb his nose at him and all the fine people who root for the Islanders. You think Snow doesn’t deserve better? You still think he was insane for stating a few weeks ago that he ”gets chills” while watching his young players develop?
There may come a day when Snow gets the last laugh on everyone. That day will certainly not be tomorrow and probably won’t happen over the next few weeks or even next season, but more and more it gets harder and harder to criticize the job he’s done considering his limited financial resources. Moulson and Grabner are living proof that Snow doesn’t just throw darts at a board hoping and praying. He simply has an eye for potential and takes risks — be it out of necessity or circumstance — where no one else would.
So if you do nothing else the rest of this season, take some time to watch Grabner.
And marvel at the speed and skill of what could end up being the prototype for Long Island hockey of the future.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini.
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