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Grabner coming into his own

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
When Michael Grabner steps onto the ice for any shift, eyes gravitate towards him. From the way he skates, to the plays he makes with his speed, he helps create offensive chances.

“He’s got great hockey sense, he’s got great speed, he shoots the puck well and if he scored on a lot of his chances, he would have scored more goals than the 34 he had last year,” Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano said. “He’s still maturing and still growing, but in the new NHL, he fits that mold with speed and deception.”

That’s a trait his former NHL clubs didn’t pick up on. Grabner was drafted by Vancouver in 2006 and made his NHL debut during the 2009-10 season, but only saw time in 20 NHL games as he was shuffled between the Canucks and Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.

Troy Brouwer and Michael Grabner battle for the puck at Nassau Coliseum on November 5, 2011. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
“Grabs has a lot of hockey sense,” his new linemate John Tavares said. “He’s a guy that can really skate by everybody. He’s a smart player and that’s why he was such a highly rated prospect and a high draft pick.”

Joining the Islanders six days prior to the start of the 2010-11 campaign, Grabner had a crazy couple of months. He was traded from Vancouver to the Florida Panthers on the day of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, attended Florida’s training camp and then was waived by the club, where he was claimed by the Isles on Oct. 3, 2010.

Once on Long Island, he may have gotten off to a slow start, scoring just nine goals and three assists in the first half of the season. But he exploded in the second half, scoring 25 goals and 15 assists for a team-leading 34 goals by the end of the regular season.

After scoring six shorthanded goals last season, second in the league only to Islanders teammate Frans Nielsen, and winning the Fastest Skater Competition at the 2011 All-Star Games, Grabner became known for his speed and offensive prowess.

“His change of direction, his deceptiveness makes it tough on defensemen,” Capuano said. “When he’s on the ice, I’m sure other teams, obviously those two D playing against him on the road, especially with their matchups, know he’s explosive. And if he gets wide, he’s a threat.”

That will only grow as he matures as a player over the next few seasons, but the 24-year-old sophomore said he’s “definitely learned a lot” in the last year.

“(For example), how to be a part of an NHL team,” Grabner said. “I’ve learned what it takes to be a professional, not just on the ice, but off the ice and how to get ready for games. There was definitely a lot I had to learn and now it’s getting better. I’m trying to stay ready for every shift and every game. I think it just doesn’t take what happens on the ice, but what happens off the ice too that goes into how well you play.”

The winger scored his fourth goal of the 2011-12 season in the Isles 6-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on Monday night, but on Tuesday, Grabner showed he’s more than a scoring threat, that he’s a high-character player that cares about the big picture more than his own personal goals.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to help the team win,” Grabner said. “The game against Washington, I didn’t score and we won, so I’d rather take that than Monday night’s goal.”

That very same goal showed why Grabner is such an offensive threat. The winger entered the offensive zone first, was strong on the forecheck, raced back to the blue-line and batted a fluttering puck back into the zone to Tavares. Grabner’s new centerman made a skilled play of his own, returning the puck to Grabner for the snap shot he ripped over Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask’s glove.

Michael Grabner skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Nassau Coliseum on October 25, 2011. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Tavares said, “After he made the play to me and I went back to him, he was smart enough to hit the spot and realize there was some open space. It was a great play. Hopefully he can continue that and we can generate some opportunities on our line.”

Capuano was also impressed with Grabner’s “stick-to-itiveness.”

“For me, when we watch (that play), it all starts with the forecheck,” Capuano said. “Not only is he the first guy in on the forecheck, but he becomes the high guy, skates back, tracks back hard and he has the ability to make that play (to Tavares). That’s what guys have to do.”

Capuano continued, “We have to continue to move our feet and create turnovers and that’s exactly how that goal was scored (Monday) night. It’s one thing to finish a check on the forecheck and stand there, but (Grabner) went in and got back through the middle hard like he is supposed to and was rewarded for it.”

Grabner may not have made the splash fans were expecting to start the season, but he’s bound to break out soon.

“He’s a guy that is very dynamic, very explosive and at any time can bring people out of their seats,” Tavares said. “He’s obviously a guy that knows how to score some goals. He should be doing that for a long time.”

Grabner is currently sixth on the Islanders scoring leaderboard with four goals and one assist for five points, which means the Austrian winger is just one goal ahead of where he was after the first 12 games of his 2010-11 campaign. He scored two goals and three assists in nine games during Oct. 2009.

Those numbers shouldn’t have anyone screaming sophomore slump; the entire Islanders roster was hit with a scoring drought to start the year. So once Grabner finds his niche, he’ll be right back in the race for a 30-plus goal season.

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