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Islanders' Grabner aims for follow-up success

Sunday, 09.25.2011 / 3:00 AM / NHL.com's 30 in 15

By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist

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Islanders' Grabner aims for follow-up success
Michael Grabner's stunning 34-goal rookie season earned him a five-year contract from the New York Islanders -- and questions about whether he can build on it.
Michael Grabner made the most of what might well have been his last chance.

The Florida Panthers acquired Grabner from the Vancouver Canucks during the 2010 Entry Draft, only to waive the 14th pick of the 2006 draft after a disappointing preseason in which he went scoreless in four games.

"I knew I wasn't going to get too many more chances," Grabner told NHL.com. "I don't think it was that bad. I felt good going into training camp. I didn't do anything in the preseason games. I didn't create any offense, I didn't play my game, didn't score any goals. They did what they had to do.

"I was ready to go down to Rochester (Florida's AHL affiliate). I would have gone down and tried to work my way back."

Instead, he got another NHL chance when the New York Islanders claimed him on waivers -- and this time, he made the most of it. He led all rookies last season with 34 goals -- the most by any first-year player since Alex Ovechkin had 52 goals and Sidney Crosby had 39 in 2005-06 -- and was a Calder Trophy finalist.

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"I was happy when the Islanders picked me up," Grabner said. "I just tried to not look back -- to move forward and try my best, play whatever role they give me."

It took a while for the Islanders to figure out what that role was going to be. He saw limited ice time through the first three months of the season as the team struggled to score, first under coach Scott Gordon and then his replacement, Jack Capuano. Despite the limited ice time on many nights, Grabner said he was learning a lot in his first opportunity at a full-time NHL job.

"Scott helped me a lot when I got here. He showed me a lot, talked to me before games, after games, the next day," Grabner said. "When Jack came in, it was like he knew a couple of guys, but he evaluated everyone and it was kind of like everything started over. I started going good from there and I tried to look forward."

Grabner didn't really take off after All-Star Weekend, when he won the Fastest Skater competition at the All-Star Skills Contest. He returned to Long Island with the kind of confidence he rarely had shown before.

"It was fun to win it, and it probably gave me a lot of confidence the rest of the year," he said. "I had a lot of (scoring) chances even before, but I didn't have too much confidence -- I missed a few and then I got a little bit down on myself. After the All-Star Game, I didn't let it bother me when I missed a chance -- I'd just try to go out on the next shift and score."

After going scoreless in his first two games after the break, Grabner lit up the scoreboard, scoring 10 times in the Isles' next six games. That included a hat trick capped by an overtime goal against Buffalo and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller, as well as back-to-back 2-goal performances, against Montreal and Pittsburgh.

Grabner and his regular center, Frans Nielsen, also were lethal while killing penalties. Nielsen led the League with 7 shorthanded goals, while Grabner had six. The duo outscored 27 of the other 29 teams while shorthanded (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia matched their 13 shorthanded goals).

Along the way, the two developed the kind of chemistry in which one player seemed to know instinctively where the other one was.

"I had a lot of (scoring) chances even before, but I didn't have too much confidence -- I missed a few and then I got a little bit down on myself. After the All-Star Game, I didn't let it bother me when I missed a chance -- I'd just try to go out on the next shift and score."
-- Michael Grabner

"Playing with Frans helped me -- it just made everything easier," Grabner said. "He's one of the best two-way players in the game and it's easy to play with him. I just go out there and try to get into open space -- he's a guy who will find you. If he gets the puck, he's not going to just throw it somewhere; he's going to try to make a play. I try to get open for him."

The question for Grabner now is what he can do for an encore. With the likelihood of more ice time than the 15:04 he averaged last season and the security of a new five-year contract, Grabner knows expectations will be higher this season.

"I'm just going to try to play the role they give me," he said. "Obviously I want to score some goals. It's the NHL, it's tough to score goals here. I hope I can repeat my season from last year. I'm just going to try to do whatever I can do to help the team win."

Grabner signed his deal in May, when he could have been a restricted free agent July 1. He said one reason he opted to commit to the club long-term was that he enjoys being part of the young core of talent Islanders General Manager Garth Snow is assembling.

"We have a great group of guys and I like the way we're heading," he said. "We have a really young team. A lot of other guys are locked up for a while -- young players. It's going to be nice to grow with them, get experience over the years and hopefully win a championship down the line."
Quote of the Day

When we started our journey we made a commitment to our fans to be relevant and to see the Chicago Blackhawks become the best professional hockey organization. There are not two finer symbols of that than Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The commitment we have made to these incredible young men is equal to the commitment they have made to our team, our fans, our entire organization and the city of Chicago.

— Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz on signing Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to contract extensions