fit the latter criterion as he was the 14th overall selection by the Vancouver Canucks. Considered a highly skilled player with tremendous raw potential, Grabner needed time to polish his game before becoming a consistent NHL threat. Five years and three franchises later, Grabner has become just that.
The first round of the NHL draft is full of two kinds of players: can’t-miss prospects and the more risky, high upside players. In 2006,
Grabner’s journey began at age five, when he first laced-up the skates in his native Austria.
“My mom signed me up on my fifth birthday because a lot of my neighbor friends were playing,” said Grabner. “I wanted to quit after the first couple of weeks.”
Playing with kids that were bigger and older, Grabner became frustrated. But he continued to fall in love with the game. His competitive spirit helped carry him through his early struggles and he began developing into an offensive power. As he grew, Grabner turned heads while competing in international tournaments in Quebec, Minneapolis and Edmonton.
|Michael Grabner #40 of the New York Islanders shoots the puck against Ryan Craig #23 of the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 11, 2011 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) |
He had developed his own personal style on the ice, combining his natural speed with a knack for finding the back of the net.
“Back in the day, there was not much NHL coverage in Austria,” said Grabner. “All you heard about was the big names like Gretzky, Lemieux, Jagr and Bure. I never really modeled my game after anyone. I just tried to play my own.”
At age 16, Grabner had received heavy interest from Canadian Junior clubs and considered moving away from home to pursue his dream of playing professional hockey.
“We had a Canadian coach back home and he knew a couple of guys here,” said Grabner. “He asked me if I wanted to play in North America. I didn’t really think about it twice and my parents had no problem with me trying to pursue my dreams."
The following season, Grabner joined the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League (WHL), where he had to adjust to the North American brand of hockey.
“It’s a different kind of style,” said Grabner. “When you come over here you definitely have to adjust to the smaller ice because there is less time on the ice and more hitting.”
Although it took some time for Grabner to become comfortable on a smaller rink, he had a natural gift that would help him be successful, no matter what size the playing surface.
“I had never worked on speed,” said Grabner. “I never had a skating coach. I was very competitive when I was young, and still am. When we did sprints off the ice at school, I always tried to be first. I think that pushed me on the ice too.”
While his speed would help ease his transition to North American hockey, Grabner also had to adjust life away from home. Luckily, he was paired with a host – or billet – family with whom he remains close today and credits them for helping him grow as not only a player, but a person.
“I was fortunate to get in with them,” said Grabner. “I lived with the same billets for three years. I call them billets so people will know who they are, but they’re my friends. I visit them each summer after I get home from Austria.”
Finally settled in and comfortable in northeastern Washington, he amassed 24 points as a 17-year-old WHL rookie, followed by two consecutive 30-goal seasons. His goal scoring ability, paired with his exceptional skating, began to draw the attention of NHL scouts.
After being drafted by the Canucks, Grabner played two full seasons with their AHL affiliate, Manitoba Moose, totaling 44 and 48 points respectively. His 2009-2010 season was split between the Moose and the Canucks, earning a roster spot for Vancouver’s postseason run.
The summer of 2010 was a whirlwind for Grabner. He was part of a draft day deal that sent him to the Florida Panthers. He entered training camp with high expectations, and admittedly underachieved, leading the Panthers to place the forward on waivers. Soon after, Grabner was claimed by the Islanders.
“I haven’t had any good camps so far,” said Grabner. “This summer, it was a little bit of a roller coaster ride, but I was happy to get another chance with the Islanders. We probably have one of the best groups of guys here.”
This season has proven to be a turning point for Grabner, as he finally begins to fulfill the potential that led to him being a first round draft pick in 2006. His blazing speed and smooth hands have helped become one of the electric young players in the game. He currently shares the team lead in goals this season with 19, placing him third in the NHL among all rookies. Grabner is another piece of the puzzle for the Islanders’ rebuilding process, and at only 23, he still has a long way to go.