Stats Don't Lie: There Was No Better Rookie At Both Ends Of Ice

By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/

NEW YORK (WFAN) — If only a player’s total points told the true story.

Please ready yourselves for possibly the closest Calder Trophy vote in recent memory, because you can barely shine a flashlight between the three finalists. And please allow me to apologize in advance for the sheer number of mindless statistics you’re about to read. In a race this tight, featuring three distinctly different talents, the only way to provide sound reasoning for one player over the other two is to really dissect the numbers.

The Islanders’ Michael Grabner has already been recognized as one of the best young players in the NHL, simply by being named a finalist for the Calder, given to the league’s top rookie. But even if you set aside the fact that he didn’t lead first-year players in scoring, he should still be the front-runner to take home the award, something no Islander forward has done since legendary Mike Bossy registered 53 goals and 91 points in 1977-78.

Grabner is going up against Carolina’s Jeff Skinner and San Jose’s Logan Couture, two players certainly worthy of the accolades they have received this season. Skinner led all rookies in scoring, amassing 63 points for the Hurricanes, who missed the playoffs on the regular season’s final day, while Couture, who put up 54 points, including a rookie league-leading eight game-winning goals, played an integral role in helping the Sharks to yet another Pacific Division title.

Total goals, assists and points should not be what set these players apart, not at this juncture. Grabner’s rookie-high 34 goals — and 52 points — were what got him into this conversation. But to pick the true Calder kingpin you have to delve deeper into the minutia of numbers. You have to look at how these goals and assists were tallied and how they impacted the teams they played for.

The Calder should be viewed like the Hart Trophy or any other individual team MVP award. How much better was a team because of one single player? The Islanders finished with 18 less points than the Hurricanes and, despite showing flashes of what’s likely to come in future seasons, were at the end of the day a very young team still finding its way. The same cannot be said for the Hurricanes and Sharks, teams lucky enough to have impact players, names like Eric Staal, Cam Ward, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, among others.

A case can be made that if Grabner had not taken the league by storm the Isles probably would have finished dead last in the NHL. I believe the Hurricanes would not have been nearly as good without Skinner, but the drop-off compared to the Islanders sans Grabner wouldn’t have been anywhere near as severe. The Sharks having Couture was like getting free money. They are perennially one of the best teams in the regular season every season.

Individually, one statistic sets Grabner apart from his co-nominees and several others prove his true value. The glaring difference between the three is the following: of Grabner’s 34 goals all but two came at either even strength or shorthanded. Think about it. He scored just twice on the power play, but was second in the NHL (behind teammate Frans Nielsen) with six shorthanded goals.

Skinner netted 31 goals, including six on the power-play and not one shorthanded. Couture lit the lamp 32 times, with 10 coming with the man-advantage and not one while man down. Some will say, well, maybe Grabner didn’t play much on the power play because he wasn’t good enough and my answer would be, just stop talking right now. You really have to see him to believe him sometimes.

In all, Grabner had 48 points at even strength and shorthanded, while Skinner had 45 and Couture had 42.

In addition, while it’s true plus-minus is often a misleading statistic, it’s not when you break down the respective talent and relative strengths and weakness of the Islanders, Hurricanes and Sharks. Grabner was a plus-13 for a team nine games below .500 and with a minus-35 goal differential, tied with Nielsen for the team lead and one of only six Islanders to be on the north side of even.

Skinner was a plus-3 for the Hurricanes, who finished nine games above .500 despite having a minus-3 goal differential. He was one of 11 players to finish above even, but only tied for seventh on his team. Couture was a plus-18, second overall on the Sharks, a team that scored 35 goals more than it allowed and one with 15 players above even, not to mention also having seven guys who scored at least 50 points.

What all of this this tells me is Grabner is the more well-rounded player, a guy who flourished despite given multiple responsibilities that went way beyond a regular second-line shift and plenty of minutes on the power play. He simply had less to work with regardless of the line he played on on a game-by-game basis as evidenced by the team’s youth and the fact that it lost nearly 600 man-games to injury, an unheard of number in any sport.

Beyond all of the numbers one also needs to look at the highlight reel. Grabner proved to be the most explosive rookie in the NHL by far. In the open ice he was nearly unstoppable. He was all too often a one-man wrecking crew out there and on numerous occasions showed everyone why he’s the fastest player in the NHL and likely one of its best on odd-man rushes.

On top of that, Grabner proved to be a very adept defensive player, often back-checking like his life depended on it only to turn what looked like perilous situations in his own end into breaks going the other way.

Let’s not forget Grabner was basically plucked from the scrap heap in training camp. Islanders GM Garth Snow saw something in the 23-year-old former first-round pick that neither the Vancouver Canucks nor Florida Panthers were able to bring to the fore.

It may not mean anything in the final analysis when the votes are tallied, but Grabner basically was five years removed from being considered the type of player who could win an award like the Calder and made himself into the player he became on the Island. While Skinner was being fawned over by several teams prior to the 2010 draft and Couture was being groomed for greatness inside a solid San Jose system, Grabner was in a sort of no-man’s land left wondering if he’d ever stick with any team in the NHL, let alone be considered six months later as possibly the best rookie in the land.

Regardless of how the vote shakes out, there will be no losers here. I’m certain Grabner, Skinner and Couture will eventually become true household names. I just think in a day and age where true individual value is often overshadowed by wins and losses, it would be shortsighted to overlook Grabner’s penchant for getting the job done at every facet of the game, especially the far less sexy ones.

He went from being a nobody to a somebody by doing all the little things, on a team that made significant strides, but was still not yet ready to take that next step. And if he hadn’t been brought aboard, the Isles likely would have floated aimlessly out to sea.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini

Do you agree with Jeff’s reasoning why Grabner should win the Calder? Let us know in the comments section below.

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