For Mikhail Grabovski, the decision to sign with the Islanders was easy.
He signed the same day as his friend and former teammate Nikolai Kulemin, he had personal ties to the organization via Assistant Coach Greg Cronin, formerly his coach in Toronto, and, most importantly, saw a team he believes can win.
“I think it’s a good fit for me,” Grabovski said. “It’s a young team, good offensively and I think they can win… I think I can help them.”
The Islanders saw a top-six forward in Grabovski; a speedy and skilled center with good hockey sense and a knack for winning faceoffs – 54% last season to be exact.
“We’ve signed a guy that has tremendous skill and speed,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said of Grabovski. “He’s very intelligent and can change the game with his speed. He’s got great deception, he’s solid in his own end – a good two-way player with offensive ability. It’s a great signing for us.”
Islanders General Manager Garth Snow saw a chance to further enhance the middle of the ice, turning a previously solid center corps into one of the deepest in the Eastern Conference.
The top line is anchored by superstar John Tavares, the Islanders perennial scoring leader, but the Grabovski signing adds scoring depth as well as competition to the field of pivots behind the Isles captain. Frans Nielsen remains the clubs top defensive center and resident shootout ace, but with a breakout campaign last season – 25 goals and 58 points – he’s shown his offensive potential. Grabovski brings a proven track record of production in the NHL, averaging 55 points per season from 2010-2012, as well as underrated two-way play.
Now the Islanders have two 25-goal scorers gunning for the same pivot, blurring the second and third lines together.
“I can help the team offensively and defensively,” Grabovski said. “The Islanders need to be stronger defensively and I can help there too… It depends where the coach gives me an opportunity to play.”
The veteran depth has a ripple effect on the Islanders lineup, as natural centers – such as Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome – may compete for spots on the wing with the likes of Michael Grabner, and Anders Lee, as well as newcomers like Kulemin and Cory Conacher.
“Centermen slow the game down with their intelligence, hockey sense and their creativity. Those qualities make their linemates better.” - Head Coach Jack Capuano
Bailey finished the 2013-14 campaign with 10 points (2G, 8A) in the final nine games while flanking Nielsen on the Islanders top line. He looked comfortable on the wing and may wind up with Nielsen again this season. Strome and Nelson will likely compete with the field for the coveted, vacant left wing alongside John Tavares.
The biggest transition for centers switching to the wing is the battles along on the wall. Engaging opponents physically and chipping pucks out of the zone is imperative for success on the wing. It’s an acquired skill, but there are benefits to having a center flanking left or right.
“Centermen slow the game down with their intelligence, hockey sense and their creativity,” Capuano said. “Those qualities make their linemates better.”
Opening night is still three months away and Capuano will evaluate all players at training camp and in the preseason. Still, with six natural centers (Grabovski, Nielsen, Nelson, Strome, Bailey and Casey Cizikas) vying for three spots, the Islanders can feel good about their strength both down the middle and spilling onto the wing.