X-Factor: Speedy Grabner could give Islanders edge
The New York Islanders enter the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs with one of the top centers in the sport.
John Tavares, the No. 1 selection at the 2009 NHL Draft, has emerged as a superstar in the NHL. Whenever defenseman Mark Streit moves on, Tavares, 22, will undoubtedly become the franchise's next captain.
But the Islanders, their fans and their opposition know No. 91 is going to produce, along with linemates Matt Moulson (a three-time 30-goal scorer) and Brad Boyes, who has rejuvenated himself in New York.
So, who is the Islanders' X-factor this postseason? Who is the one man the opposition would be foolish to forget about, who can help the Islanders claim what would be their first playoff series victory since 1993?
A finalist for the Calder Trophy in 2011, Grabner possesses remarkable speed that frequently translates into a breakaway. If he's able to create such opportunities -- and bury them -- it will go a long way in determining if New York puts an end to its 20-year series-victory drought.
Grabner was ill for much of his first training camp with the Panthers and struggled. Florida general manager Dale Tallon wanted Grabner to get some games in the American Hockey League, but that required the Austrian winger to go through waivers. Snow wasn't about to pass on the opportunity to claim Grabner, who scored 34 goals in his first season in New York and is unquestionably one of the biggest pieces of Snow's rebuild, evidenced by the five-year, $15 million contract he signed with the Islanders in May 2011.
Seeking more balance throughout the lineup, Islanders coach Jack Capuano has Grabner skating on the third line with veteran center Keith Aucoin and gritty wing Colin McDonald. The move has made New York less top-heavy and, ultimately, more dangerous.
"It's been good," Grabner said recently. "I've been playing on a different line and Mac's been doing a good job on the forecheck and I'm just trying to get open in the slot. They're great passers. I'm just trying to shoot it quick and surprise the goalie."
Grabner's quick release has been beneficial this season. He finished with 16 goals, second on the club behind Tavares.
Grabner isn't a one-dimensional player either. Knowing how his speed can create turnovers, Capuano frequently has Grabner on the ice to kill penalties. Grabner had one shorthanded goal this season and spent more than 100 minutes on the ice while the Islanders were killing penalties.
The focus will be on Tavares and New York's top line. But Grabner's abilities are strong enough he can be a difference-maker this postseason.