Heading into the start of NHL free agency two weeks ago the Rangers were looking to upgrade their overall team speed and improve their penalty killing, which had slipped to 26th overall last season.
With the signing of 28 year-old winger Michael Grabner, the Rangers were able to address both of those needs. The Blueshirts also were able to land a former 30-goal scorer in Grabner, who can play up and down the four forward line combinations if Alain Vigneault so chooses.
"I think my strength is my skating, the speed I have, and I've had a lot of success on the PK, too, because I can break up plays and quickly cover people because of my speed" Grabner told BlueshirtsUnited.com from his home in Austria late last week. "I use that speed to put a lot of pressure on the opposition, try and turn them over and quickly go the other way. And I've scored some goals in the past and hopefully I can get the offensive side of my game up a little bit more again."
Last year, his one and only season in Toronto after spending the previous five seasons with the Islanders, Grabner appeared in 80 games with the Maple Leafs, scoring nine goals and totaling 18 points. Two of those goals were game-winners and another was shorthanded.
Most importantly Grabner logged 14:28 per game--his highest ice-time in three years--as a solid defensive-minded forward and one of the top penalty killers in the entire National Hockey League.
"I never was on the penalty kill in the AHL, but when I got to Long Island I was on it and now I really love the penalty kill," explained Grabner, who has scored 12 shorthanded goals in his career, including six with the Islanders in 2010-11. "I love the feeling of going out there to try and shut down and rattle the other team's top guys. You break up some plays, get some clears and then they try and force things, you have them. Then that momentum translates into five on five and other parts of the game. So I think penalty killing is so important now and with not much difference between the teams in this league, special teams can win you games."
Interestingly Grabner's journey to the Rangers may have actually taken root all the way back in 2006-07 when the then 19 year-old Grabner began his professional career playing for Vancouver's AHL affiliate in Manitoba. His head coach for four seasons in the minor leagues--which included one 30-goal season and a trip to the 2009 Calder Cup Final--was Scott Arniel, who is now the Rangers associate coach.
Taking things a step further, Grabner was called up to the NHL in 2009-10 by the Canucks where Vigneault was his head coach. Grabner played well and had a regular spot in the lineup as Vancouver eventually was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
However years later, the early relationships Grabner built, in particular with Arniel, helped land him on Broadway this summer.
"I know the coaches really well," said Grabner. "I know AV is a really good coach, has had a lot of success, plus he coached me first year in the NHL. And I know Scott really well, in fact spoke with him about my role before I signed here; and that made my decision a lot easier."
Coming to the Rangers not only means reuniting with his former coaches, but it is a chance to play for an Original Six franchise with Stanley Cup aspirations each and every year. That played a major role, as well, in Grabner's decision to sign with New York.
"It's really nice to know they really wanted me and thought I could really help out the team," explained Grabner. "They have a great team with a lot of good players and they are always in the playoff picture; and that's what you play for. I'm 28 going on 29, your goals and the way you think about things changes a bit. I want the chance to win a Stanley Cup. I'm not as concerned about personal goals."
It'll be a twist for Grabner to come join this side of the Rangers-Islanders rivalry, too. For five seasons--which included 34, 20, and 16 goal campaigns on Long Island--Grabner was a thorn in the side of the Rangers. Now he will get to experience this intense rivalry from a different point of view, and will get his first taste on Opening Night, October 13 at Madison Square Garden.
"Playing for the Rangers against the Islanders is going to be a lot of fun," offered Grabner. "I still know a lot of guys on the team there, have some good friends, had some great years there, but that's the past. I'll keep the memories, but it's a business and you have to change, and change quick. There's no friends on the ice, and that's always it's been for me since I started playing hockey."
Grabner will be representing Austria in an Olympic qualifier late this summer and then will come to New York for training camp in September, ready to reunite with the liked of Vigneault and Arniel as well as forge new relationships with his teammates on the Rangers.
"I cherish the opportunity to play for the New York Rangers."