Michael Grabner reflects on his path to the NHL

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There’s a sizable group of players who hope to prove that their breakthrough 2010-11 seasons weren’t flukes, even if many of them already cashed in on their first “hit” seasons. Joel Ward, Teddy Purcell and Sean Bergenheim are just a few of the guys who face the tough task of putting on an encore performance and justifying a significant pay raise, but one of the most interesting cases is that of New York Islanders speedster Michael Grabner.

The Islanders made a significant investment in Grabner, signing him to a five-year, $15 million deal on the heels of a 34-goal season in which he finished as one of the three finalists for the Calder Trophy. Grabner’s 2010-11 season went from rough (being traded by the Vancouver Canucks) to humiliating (being waived by the Florida Panthers and picked up by the Islanders) to a stunning success.

Perhaps it was a mere coincidence, but it almost seemed like Grabner’s runaway victory during the 2011 NHL All-Star Game’s fastest skater competition was a coming out party for the speedy sniper. Grabner’s split stats certainly make a case that something changed once 2011 rolled around. After scoring five goals and 11 points in 32 games from October through December 2010, Grabner scored 26 goals and 41 points in 44 games from January to April 2011. John Blanchette elaborates on Grabner’s hot streak.

The early going was still a struggle – the Islanders lost 14 in a row at one point – but he was invited to the SuperSkills competition at the NHL All-Star game in January and won the fastest skater event. And as his ice time grew, so did his impact. Starting in mid-January, he scored 16 goals in a month – including 10 in a stunning six-game stretch. He finished with a rookie-high 34 goals, which earned him third place in the Calder Trophy voting – and that hefty contract.

It might be easy to summarize Grabner’s journey to the NHL through the dramatic highs and lows of his previous season, but Blanchette points out that Grabner struggled in his first year out of Austria with the Spokane Chiefs, something the winger discussed during the team’s training camp.

Grabner was a Chiefs rookie, their first Austrian import, in 2004 who suffered a broken collarbone in his first Western Hockey League shift. It was the job of Kevin Sawyer – then an assistant but himself a former Chief with NHL experience – to skate him back into shape.

“And Michael seriously thought Kevin was trying to kill him,” recalled Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz with a laugh – perhaps hearing Sawyer’s impression of Grabner’s thickly accented moans in his head. “He couldn’t believe it. He wanted to go home.

“But every player has to go through some kind of adjustment here and that was Michael’s – the competitive adjustment. I think he was the best player in Austria – he could skate away from or catch anybody – but he wasn’t ready to be a competitive player like the Canadians who grow up playing bantam and midget hockey in an intense environment.”

Ultimately, Grabner’s career took off the same way his 2010-11 season erupted: with a goal-scoring spree. It’s difficult to say if he will remain a dangerous scorer through the life of his contract. On the bright side, he’s only 23 years old and his shooting percentage (14.9 pct.) wasn’t outrageously high last season. That number will likely go down to somewhere around 10-12 percent next season, but if he keeps firing shots on net (228 in 76 games in 10-11) he should be able to flirt with the 25+ goal mark when healthy. On the other hand, he still has a way to go before he’s a complete player and one season of strong work makes a five-year contract seem like a scary risk.

Either way, Grabner’s faced some turmoil already in his career, so it’s reasonable think that he can shake off a setback or two during the next five seasons.

The Buzzer: Night of the goalies

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Players of the Night:

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning needed Vasilevskiy to play like the NHL All-Star that he is and that’s exactly what he gave them, stopping 40 shots to help the Lightning to a 2-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. The win was important for Tampa, who regained the top spot in the NHL standings and ended a three-game slide in the process. Vasilevskiy’s league-leading seventh shutout of the season ties a franchise record.

Petr Mrazek, Detroit Red Wings: Mrazek fielded 37 shots from the New Jersey Devils on Monday night and handled each and every one of them for his second shutout in as many starts.

Nick Cousins, Arizona Coyotes: Cousins got the ball rolling for the Desert Dogs in the first period, giving them a 1-0 lead. After the Islanders tied the game in the third, Cousins put the final stamp on the game with a goal 2:21 into overtime to give Arizona their second straight win.

Comeback of the Night:

Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild: Zucker got drilled in the head with a slap shot in the first period and had to be helped off the ice. Miraculously, Zucker returned a short time later and went on to score the game-winning goal at the 4:59 mark of the third period, breaking a 1-1 tie in the Wild’s 3-1 win against the Ottawa Senators.

Highlights of the Night:

Granlund and Dumba:

Mrazek made plenty of saves on Monday and perhaps none better than this one (Brian Boyle‘s reaction is priceless):

Ottawa Senators fans will like this, even if the end result wasn’t great:

Auston Matthews had the celebration of the night:

Factoids of the Night:

Scores:

Avalanche 4, Maple Leafs 2

Red Wings 3, Devils 0

Wild 3, Senators 1

Lightning 2, Blackhawks 0

Sabres 2, Flames 1 (OT)

Coyotes 3, Islanders 2 (OT)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Lightning end three-game skid with 2-0 win over Blackhawks

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Jon Cooper called declared that his team was “out of sync” prior to Monday night’s game in Chicago.

It’s three words that haven’t been used at all this season to describe the Tampa Bay Lightning who, up until Sunday, was known as the best team in the NHL.

The Lightning came into Monday night nursing a three-game losing streak, another foreign concept for a team saw four of its players elected to the NHL’s All-Star Game this coming weekend.

But just as quickly as they dropped out of the top spot in the NHL — the Vegas Golden Knights assumed that throne for 24 hours after a win on Sunday night — the Lightning snatched it back in a 2-0 triumph over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Windy City on Monday.

For a team that perhaps forgot how to play with one another, they looked comfortable in each other’s company against the Blackhawks.

The game was tight for the most part, and it took the Blackhawks being caught napping shorthanded to break a 0-0 deadlock late in the second period as Chris Kunitz took advantage of a defensive mishap. 

Jake Dotchin’s wrister sailed wide, but Kunitz was allowed to waltz behind the net, pick up the loose puck and put it behind Jeff Glass, nearly untouched through the whole process.

The NHL’s top goalie once again lived up to the distinction as Andrei Vasilevskiy turned aside all 40 shots that came his way.

The Blackhawks put up 10 or more shots in each of the game’s three periods, including 17 in the second frame. But the All-Star netminder played and exceptional game, including stopping 10 out of 10 on the power play to keep Chicago 0-for-6 on the power play.

Yanni Gourde sealed the game late in the third with a blast to make it 2-0.

It’s a win Tampa needed, especially after finding out they’ll miss forward Ondrej Palat indefinitely.

The struggles continued for the Blackhawks, meanwhile.

Chicago has now been shutout twice in their past three games and is on a three-game skid with a 4-5-1 record in their past 10.

The Lightning could afford their losing streak. They’ve earned an opportunity to slide a little bit.

For the Blackhawks, another loss means another chance missed trying to survive in a deeply competitive Central Division.

The Blackhawks are hanging by a thread and time is running out quickly.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Colorado Avalanche’s win streak hits double digits

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The streak is now in double digits.

The Colorado Avalanche won their 10th straight game on Monday night, taking down the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2.

Yes, that’s 10 wins by the team that ended last season with an NHL-worst 48 points.

Hockey is wonderful, isn’t it?

The Avalanche have been pretty darn good during that streak, outscoring opponents 41-16 during that span. Scoring four goals per game on average will win you more than it won’t.

And the Avs have had success on the back end. Jonathan Bernier has been completely lights out during the streak. He is on a streak of his own with nine straight wins, becoming the third netminder in franchise history to win nine in a row after Stephane Fiset (9) and Patrick Roy (11).

Colorado’s streak is also an NHL-best this season and it’s the second longest streak in Avs history (they won 12 straight during the 1998-99 season).

The Avs are sitting on 57 points, good for the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jason Zucker takes a puck to the head (video)

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How in the world did he get up?

Too many players have been getting drilled in the head lately by slap shots. It’s an ugly site to behold whenever it happens

Somehow, however, Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild was able to pop right back up and head directly to the dressing room. No passing GO on this one.

The puck hit him so squarely in the helmet that it ricocheted back toward the Thomas Chabot, who uncorked the shot in the first place.

Even more insane is that Zucker was able to return to the game.

Talk about hard-headed.