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Austrian-born Grabner a revelation for Islanders

by David Kalan
Austria has been a major player in central Europe for centuries, with an influential history spanning the Hapsburg dynasty to Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

But hockey is a different matter.

The NHL has had players from a wide swath of nations across three continents in recent decades, but Austria curiously has lacked a position of influence in the NHL and international hockey in general, having not won a medal in a major tournament in decades.

"Honestly, (for kids) it was mostly soccer," New York Islanders rookie forward Michael Grabner said in attempting to explain where hockey stands in his homeland. "Obviously it's an expensive sport. Every year you've got to buy new stuff, so a lot of families just didn't have the money to keep their kid going."

Grabner is one of three Austrians currently in the NHL, along with Philadelphia forward Andreas Nodl and Buffalo forward Thomas Vanek, and while Vanek has been a dependable scorer in his six-year career, Grabner's impressive rookie campaign this season just may make him the man to put Austria on the NHL's map.

After being claimed by the Islanders just before the start of the season, Grabner has 28 goals and 14 assists, and looks like a sure bet to crack the 30-goal barrier in his first full season. His performance has him in the discussion for the Calder Trophy.

At the same time, the Islanders have been one of the best teams in the League recently, going 22-14-6 since Dec. 15, and not coincidentally, that run has mirrored Grabner's coming-out party. From mid-January to mid-February, he went on a torrid stretch, scoring 16 goals in 15 games.

While a playoff berth this season seems unlikely, Grabner has become another reason the future, at long last, looks bright on Long Island.

"He's been terrific," linemate Kyle Okposo said of Grabner. "When he gets hot, it's scary. He can score in bunches and he's almost got 30 goals this year -- and to think he was put on waivers earlier this season. To come to us was a blessing in disguise."

And as the season has gone on, teammates have noticed Grabner getting better and better.

"As the year goes on you can feel his confidence growing," said defenseman Andrew MacDonald. "When he first got here you knew he was fast, but as the year's gone on and he's had some success, you can tell … he's doing moves coming in 1-on-1 at full speed that he wouldn't have tried or wouldn't have been able to do a couple months ago. You're almost cheating in 1-on-1 drills, trying to get your feet going and he's going straight up the ice on you and you can't catch him."

Grabner's breakout performance is something of a surprise after his relatively pedestrian debut with the Canucks last season, in which he had 5 goals and 6 assists in 20 games. After being dealt to Florida during the 2010 Entry Draft, Grabner was placed on waivers by the Panthers, who hoped to send him to the AHL. However, the Islanders snagged him in what at the time seemed like a minor move. However, it's one that has paid significant dividends.

Grabner's final numbers should be impressive, but he said he still has room to develop his game. He cited his play killing penalties as one area he's worked to improve this season.

However, if Grabner has a long way to go to reach his potential, it shouldn't seem too daunting considering his unlikely rise. In a country where "Fussball" generally is the sport of choice among kids, few amateur hockey players bother crossing the pond. Still, Grabner showed enough potential to warrant coming to North America to play junior hockey with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League in 2004, a remarkable development since he isn't sure why he started playing the sport in the first place.

"I don't know," he said. "My mom signed me up when I was 5. I just started playing and I never really stopped. After my first year that's all I wanted to do. I went to the rink right after school and stayed there for like seven, eight hours a day playing floor hockey and waiting to get on the ice. I just had a lot of fun doing it."

Grabner, who can be a restricted free agent after the season, appears to have found a new home in New York, but if he continues to develop there is the chance he could make waves in Austria, too. To say that Grabner is the best player to come out of his native country in recent seasons would be a disservice to Vanek, who has topped 35 goals in three of his five full seasons and has an outside shot to do it again in 2010-11. However, Grabner has scored more in his rookie season than Vanek did in his, and seems likely to surpass Vanek's rookie assist total as well.

But Grabner has another advantage: He's fast -- really fast.

The rookie turned heads during All-Star Weekend when, with an assist from former teammate Ryan Kesler, Grabner was tabbed to compete in the fastest skater competition for Team Staal and wound up winning the event.

"Speed is so important in today's game," said MacDonald. "He'll literally flip the puck to himself with half a zone between him and the defenseman and he'll beat the 'D' to the puck. It's a nightmare as a defenseman."

Being so preternaturally gifted could be what sets Grabner apart from his fellow Austrian NHL players down the line, and he just may have more countrymen to compete with in the future if his progress starts to get noticed back home, where the sport has grown in recent years.

That's no bother to Grabner, though, who wouldn't mind having more Austrians in the League, or being the impetus for future hockey development, either.

"As soon as the lockout happened, hockey grew a lot there because a couple of NHL guys came to Austria and played there," Grabner said. "Hopefully I can help that out a bit and open it up. Just even to see some scouts look at more of the league or young players from there, obviously it would be nice to get some more hype about Austrian players."

For now, the best way Grabner can help the cause is by doing what he's done the past three months -- score goals with regularity. With 3 goals in his last five games, the speedy 23-year-old isn't showing signs of slowing down, and even if his success this season was unexpected by many -- including Grabner himself -- there's no reason to believe he won't continue to show up on the score sheet.

"I didn't want to set my goals too high at the beginning of the year," Grabner said. "I just wanted to make the team and establish myself, play my role, get used to it and try to get consistent with my overall game. So I'm a little surprised about the numbers this year.

"But I was drafted for scoring. I love to score goals and I'm just trying to do that as much as I can."

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