By Daniel Friedman
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One of the most intriguing aspects of hockey is that it’s inherently unpredictable.
It’s what makes the game tick, what makes it breathe. Hockey is the type of sport that truly requires all hands on deck, that demands unsung heroics and Cinderella-esque performances.
It’s why the noise level in the crowd reaches a fever-pitch crescendo at the exact moment that the home team gets possession of the puck and goes on the attack — whether they’re starting from the neutral zone or their own goal line, whether it’s the scorers and playmakers or the grinders and muckers.
It’s why the fans at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum jump out of their seats whenever Michael Grabner is on a breakaway.
To say that it is difficult to fathom how Grabner failed to make the Florida Panthers would be an absolute understatement. He has dropped a lot of jaws since coming over to New York, and his talent has been on full display.
Even the most casual hockey observer will notice him from the get-go. Grabner skates like the wind, his strides fluid and graceful. Watching him trek up and down the ice is akin to seeing poetry in motion.
However, explosiveness is one thing; scoring is another. These days, Grabner more closely resembles a Charlie Conway than a Pavel Bure. He creates a plethora of scoring chances for himself, only to misfire on half of them.
The flaws in his game are not skill-related. Rather, they are mental errors; split-second decisions that turn would-be goals into failed opportunities.
Grabner’s release is deceptively quick and his wrist shot is even quicker, but his tendency to overthink the play has led to many an unconverted chance. At times, he has difficulty settling the puck and, at others, he waits too long before taking his shot.
Naturally, the critics have come out in full force and called out Grabner for his shortcomings. An error in judgment on the part of an athlete warrants criticism but, on the part of a critic, to overreact is likewise an error in judgment.
It is one thing to assess that Grabner needs to be a more polished scorer, that he needs to use his speed but have the wherewithal not to over-skate the puck, to shoot when he has the goaltender out of position or before he runs out of real estate.
However, to suggest that he’s not deserving of his role, that he needs to be traded immediately — if not sooner — is something else entirely.
What has so obviously been taken for granted is that Grabner is a rare breed. The fact of the matter is that most hockey players do not possess the ability to open up the ice and blitz right through the adversary with their skating the way that he does.
Perhaps it’s that initial excitement, that feeling that Grabner can do something phenomenal, that not only leaves those who’ve witnessed him play wanting more, but causes them to express such animosity towards him.
For a moment, put the statistics aside and realize what it is that Grabner brings to the table. There are forwards in this league who consider themselves lucky to get as many breakaways in an entire season as he normally does in two or three nights.
This is not something that a hockey player can be taught. He either has it or he doesn’t.
In this results-driven society and, similarly, in this results-driven sport, people tend to overlook such details. There is a lot more to hockey than shooting and scoring, something that’s been lost in translation over the years and needs to be reinforced.
Like passing, shooting, hitting or puck-handling, speed is an integral part of this game, one that can have an impact in multiple capacities. There are very few players in this league who can represent that notion as well as Grabner.
Grabner utilizes his wheels to establish a presence in the offensive zone and, when he does it several times, that has a psychological effect on opposing teams.
Coaches cannot simply draw up a defensive scheme to shut him down. Put one defenseman on Grabner and he’ll be left in the dust. Double-team him and you’re leaving another Islander forward wide open.
When Grabner is at top speed, nobody can stop him. They know it and he knows it.
He doesn’t always find the back of the net, but he’s done it often enough that he deserves to be recognized. Grabner has racked up 70 goals in 199 games, an average of 23 per year — one of which was abbreviated due to a work stoppage. I would take that any day of the week.
The 2013 playoffs were just Grabner’s second foray into serious springtime hockey and almost assuredly won’t be his last (he played in nine postseason games with Vancouver in 2009-10). His performance was encouraging, adding a goal and three assists in the six games against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
If given a center who can skate faster than those he’s been assigned to play with, Grabner would have even more chances to light the lamp. Incoming freshman Ryan Strome is mobile and can make plays. He’d be a superb choice.
There is more to Grabner than the offense that he does or doesn’t produce. His adeptness in penalty-kill situations has helped the Islanders, a team that generally struggles in that department, by calmly skating with the puck into the neutral zone and away from trouble.
That he generates scoring chances at will doesn’t hurt either, and holds true regardless of how many skaters are on the ice. Grabner has scored eight shorthanded goals over the past three years, six of which were recorded in 2010-11.
Grabner has also become a better two-way hockey player as time has progressed. In 2011-12, he ranked fifth in the league in takeaways with 94, tied with Marian Hossa in that category. The previous season he had 69, just two behind some Detroit Red Wing named Pavel Datsyuk.
What’s certain is that Grabner has talent, that he is a blur only when darting around the rink who otherwise stands out quite clearly.
It’s why he’s as fascinating a character as you’ll find on this team and it’s why, despite all the scoring chances that he’s missed, people still get out of their seats whenever he goes one-on-one with an opposing goaltender — not only to wonder, but also to dream.
If Grabner can take the head games that have plagued him and throw them into the discard pile when the puck is on his stick, the sky’s the limit.
He’s already a good hockey player. The only “unpredictable” thing about Grabner is how much more he’s capable of.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN.
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